The Feast at Painoct
Sajon called for one of his men to ride ahead to the Vasior and prepare for our arrival.
“Prepare as if you were receiving royalty,” he said to the rider. Sajon then insisted to Father that I honor him by riding aback his horse. Because of the logistics involving the sword and shield (namely that no one else could carry them lest they become weighty and unmovable) it became necessary for us to fashion a strap from the sheared canopy of the wagon. Each end tied to the top and bottom of the sword’s grip while a separate strap was fed through the handles of the shield. And so it was that with these I was able to sling both weapons upon my back and cling to Sajon’s baldric strapped across his own back and holding a sword similar in size to the one I was carrying. The blade was brilliant enough for me to observe my own expressions of discomfort as we trotted along the way. To see us in such proximity, one would hardly believe that this man meant to kill me only a few moments ago.
One of Sajon’s men offered his horse to Father while he chose to steer the wagon for Mother and Madeline. The men surrounded our wagon and led us on for a few miles over the rutted pathway. The rain had stopped and the sun was beginning to peek through the clouds, but low enough in the sky to remind us that night was besetting our journey. Passing through a thickening of brush, we eventually came into a clearing. Several of the men held the branches back in order to guide the wagon through. At the top of the hill in the clearing I could see what appeared to be a settlement of Sajon’s men. Sajon and I took the lead and crossed the open field toward the gathering of distant bustling and haze. It soon became clear that this outpost served as an immediate dispatch for guarding the transient road from the GhihlandBridge.
As we moved through, I could see that the soldiers were not the only residents. There were women and children of all sorts, dirty and ragged, tending to duties, running and playing, looking up and about us as we passed by. The dryad children buzzed around the canopy of the wagon while both troll and human children ran near the edge of the caravan to assuage their curiosity. Every so often a mother dryad would take to flight, zipping toward all of them to discourage their curiosity.
I’d never seen trolls or dryads. I knew that the citizenry of Ganchimi was made of a diverse collection of creatures, but their presence was foreign to me. I knew they existed in the same sense that I knew the sun was hot, but I’d never been to the surface of the sun to prove such truth and neither had I seen the likes of such creatures in my land; very real but an oddity to my attention. I do know that at one time, all of the creatures of Ganchimi lived in a unity that is yet to be surpassed. However, not long after the days of Otem, there were wars in Ganchimi that caused divisions among all of the creatures. Some have even said that these wars would be the cause for Otem’s return. And yet, with the formation of the Kingdom in Ganchimi, peace has prevailed in the land and all has been well. But this came at great cost within the bowels of Center-Wood. Of course, no one would speak of the bad blood between the Dryads and the humans. I knew the apparent results, but it wasn’t long before I would learn the true details.
I glanced at Mother in the cart as we marched. Mother seemed to hold a cheerless expression when she caught eyes with the other women holding their infants and then looking away. I knew that we were not wealthy, but I also knew that we were not of such dire poverty. This seemed to rekindle the sadness in Mother that I had seen in her the evening before our journey began.
We continued our procession through the busy settlement, often moving through billows of low-lying smoke drifting lazily along from the campfires. I was very hungry so the smell of anything being roasted took upon a rich and inviting aroma.
“Look around you, little one,” Sajon called back to me, “for this is what you have been chosen to save.”
“What is this place?” I asked.
“It is the first annoying step among many for us this fine day in Ganchimi.” He laughed at first but then took on a more serious tone, “It is a remnant of what once was. It is the first of the Painoct Fields.”
“This is Painoct?”
“It is one of our fields. But we are not yet to where we will cross Milver-Lion.”
“How much further must we travel?”
“Not far. We will venture to the foot of our Vasior tree which is beyond the hills before us, for there it is that our bridge is anchored.”
Looking around, I sensed a countenance of dismal color. “These people, who are they?” I asked.
“These are the remnants of the great tribulation between the ruling kingdoms of the Dryads and Man.”
“I’ve heard the stories.”
“What you’ve heard is a lie.”
“What do you mean?” I asked a bit hesitantly for fear that his gruff nature would return.
“All Ganchimans have been told of the greatness of their land’s history. On one hand, we’ve heard of its beauty and nobility, and yet on the other we have sought to forget its dark past at the hands of ‘supposed’ heroes of old, battling to the death with their brothers within the rigid valleys and the forest floors of Center-Wood.”
“Do you mean to insult the good name of the Sower by…?” I was immediately interrupted.
“Never!” he said stopping his horse for a moment. “There is none like the Sower! He is the reason for all life, even for such pitiful folk as mine. It is for the sake of the Sower that we despise this present kingdom.” Once again, Sajon paced his horse in a steady walk and continued, “There is darkness upon the kingdom of Ganchimi, and it has at its axis the shadowy concord of men and treelings. It is this that causes us grief.”
“I know not of what you speak.”
“Of course not. You live among those who claim to serve the Sower and yet serve their own bellies.” It seemed for a moment that he was once again insulting my father, but I held my tongue to hear him continue. “And it would appear that you venture to stand before such men at the Assembly.”
“I must go before the Assembly as Father has instructed,” I said, “and they will provide judgment for me.”
“If you go to the Assembly, you will be judged for sure. But greater is the spirit that is within you than that of the Assembly. You will be the judge of your duty to Ganchimi.”
“I am only a boy, as I have told Father, and he has spoken the same words. And yet how can I know that which is foreign to me?”
“Listen carefully and you will know. Listen carefully to the words of those that command you and you will recognize their treachery.”
“But I thought all of Ganchimi awaited the coming of the one to be chosen? Aren’t they fearful of Otem’s return as well and seeking deliverance?”
“There are some that find the idea of living comfortably among the rule of a dragon very tempting. They have been promised great things and with this they have been deceived and their souls can determine no different. The beginnings of the signs have come upon us.”
“The signs?” I asked.
“You have been told that all of the provinces have Vasior trees that rise majestic above the land. And yet I know of only a few that remain alive to this day. The rest are dead and yet their Caretakers tirelessly convince themselves that they are strong and fruitful. What fools!”
“I believe that Father has received visits from such men, but he has always turned them away kindly. He has mentioned his concern for their madness.”
“He is wise to do so. Perhaps it is that I misjudged him.”
“Oh yes, Sajon, the Vasior of the Nefton Woods is strong and righteous, rising mightily from the soil! Father cares greatly for its well-being and guards it from anything unnatural.”
“Then your father is indeed a great man as you have said, for only a Caretaker with the heart of the Sower can diligently care for a Vasior and see it live when all others would seek its destruction. I must see to it immediately that he receives my apologies.” Turning his horse, he walked back toward Father. Gathering his horse near to Father’s, he spoke.
“Holy man,” he said as he leaned in, “your son is well-versed in your faithful service to the Vasior in the Nefton Woods. Accept me to confess my sin against you, for I find my trust in the Caretakers in Ganchimi to be lacking.”
“Be absolved, Sajon,” Father said smiling. He reached out and put his hand on Sajon’s shoulder, “Take heart, brother. I know that of which you speak and I am not ignorant. But this course you take with strangers, we must rectify it immediately. Your sword must be purified if we are to use it in the days to
come.” Sajon looked a bit perplexed with Father’s words at first, but offered his apologies again amidst a bit of an embarrassed, but genuine grin and trotted away. I looked back to Father and smiled. He smiled and motioned with his hands for me to hang on while giving his familiar wink. Somehow I couldn’t help but think that he had planned everything that had happened so far. Here I was riding aback the steed of a brutal soldier, renown among the surrounding provinces for his dreadful acts of savagery, a man whose name most assuredly causes trepidation for those that hear it spoken, and yet I was strangely comforted that he was with us and offering us such gentle hospitality.
We rode on a few more miles, eventually dropping back down another sloping hill to the edge of the Milver-Lion. The water was still surging along with great force, but seemed to be less than before. Darkness was fully upon us and the men in our mob lit their torches to guide the way. It wasn’t long before the hunger in my belly was unbearable and I could hear Madeline groaning to Mother of her own pains. We could not eat because Sajon’s men had scattered our food along the ground and trampled it in our first encounter. And even though I was enticed by the smells of the previous settlement, no one dared to ask for food from such a downtrodden clan. We would wait until we reached the Vasior.
A bit further along and we heard the galloping of a horse in the darkness. Coming upon us quickly, I recognized him as the rider sent by Sajon from before.
“All is prepared for your arrival, sire.”
“Very good,” Sajon replied, “These people are tired and hungry and it is to my credit. Make a place for them at my table as we will arrive shortly.” The rider turned and returned in the direction from which he came. The sky was overcast with clouds so the stars were hidden from us and the rider quickly faded. The blackness of the sky offered a slight preview of the forest line that lay ahead. All seemed to merge together in the darkness of night. As we drew nearer to the woods, light became visible between the trees and there was the sound of business and bustle, the kinds of sounds one might hear during a festival.
Our caravan passed into the edge of the woods and soon we were found in a great opening of tents and wooden structures, all of which found at their center a massive Vasior, lighted with torches and streaming with banners of many colors. The whole scene was vibrant with activity as countless numbers of creatures streamed in all directions to prepare for Sajon’s arrival. Dryads hovered busily near the tree to place and tend to the rolling banners. As for the tree, I would not have believed its beauty and size accept to have seen it myself.
“Welcome to my home, Joshua,” Sajon said proudly while motioning his hand in welcome. “Welcome to Painoct. Come, for the feast is ready.” Sajon dismounted and then reached up to lift me from the saddle. I took off the sword and shield and carried them before me. All in the caravan were ushered to tables set at the foot of the mighty Vasior tree. Mother and Father sat together at the head table, but it was Madeline and I that were seated to the left and right of Sajon. His wife, Duraa, took her place at the table but seemed to scowl that her seat at his left was taken by Madeline. (A most peculiar woman as she refused the gracious attempts of my Mother for conversation throughout most of the feast and any attempt by Sajon to include her in the conversation at hand was met with uncomfortable coldness.)
I put my weapons at the foot of my chair and gawked at the activity that overwhelmingly enveloped us. A band of musicians held rank near the end of the table, offering joyful music and a rhythm for dancing. A tremendous hog had already been prepared and placed before us. I savored the smell, but dared not reach for a portion just yet. Sajon took his glass and stood to speak. He motioned for silence and addressed the crowd.
“Dear friends of Painoct, I must be brief in words or we may find it necessary to turn this celebration into a funeral for this poor family.” A bit of laughter washed through the crowd. “Let us pray in thanksgiving for the guests that we have before us and begin our feast.” With these words, he offered his petition and sat down to eat. The next few hours were spent in calming conversation with one another. Father and Sajon seemed to become associates rather easily. Sajon questioned Father as to his method for ministering to the tree while Father carried on about the incidents in our lives thus far, carefully telling our tale in detail. Father spoke of my triumph over the Pickers and this caused Sajon to raise his glass and pat my back with heavy gestures of pride.
“Well done, young sir!” he exclaimed. “This is more than I can say for anyone I’ve known to bear a sword in combat. And your sister, what courage, I say, what courage!” At first, I found his demeanor and mannerisms to be surprisingly remarkable. Nevertheless, as the evening progressed, I could see incredible similarities between Father and Sajon that made me forget the incident in the forest. I sat quietly and listened to the joyful blare that surrounded me, all the while my mind continued to find distraction with what was ahead. It seems that tomorrow I would meet the Assembly and discover my fate. But with the words of Sajon from before, I found myself questioning my ability to trust the Assembly? I excused myself from the table and wandered away to the reverse side of the tree. I knew that Father and Mother watched with concerned eyes. Sajon merely blessed my excuse and then went on prying with Father.
I came to a huge root, twisted and rolling beneath the ground, it rose up offering a place to sit. Just down a path that cut into the tree line that bordered the water’s edge, I could see the bridge for crossing the Milver-Lion. The overpass was lined with torches for venturing at night and was big enough to carry the likes of more than one carriage in either direction. It would seem that the Painocts had taken great pride in the construction of this bridge.
I walked down to the water’s edge and leaned over to choose some stones for skipping. The closer I came to the water, the more I could hear the sounds of the festivities beyond the tree become dampened by the river’s noisy and quick pace. Just as I found the perfect rock, flattened and smooth, I set it sailing across the top of the water. Because the river was still quite swollen and rushing rather fiercely, the rock made only a single hop before being overcome by the whitewater. A voice came from behind.
“It’s impossible to skip rocks after the rains have come. The water is too angry.” I turned to see a young boy standing near the edge of the bridge. His clothes were tattered and his face very dirty; a sharp contrast to the bright curly locks of blonde hair that rested on his head.
“But if you throw with the current,” I said “you can get a few good hops.”
“Yes, things are much easier when you travel downstream,” the boy returned, “but to accomplish the incredible, you have traveled upstream.” The boy picked up another rock and threw it into the water. “My name is Philip,” he said.
“I know,” Philip said, “for my Father is a seer in our community and foretold your arrival. He said that one would come to us that would be the salvation of Ganchimi.”
“I don’t know if I can save anyone,” I replied as I walked back to the root that protruded from the ground and sat down. The noise of the festivities became noisy once more. “I really don’t know what is required of me. It’s all very confusing.”
Philip came close and sat on the ground near the edge of the tree. “What have you been told?” he asked as if he already knew what I’d say.
“I am the one that is to fight Otem.”
“Otem?!” Philip laughed. “You are to wage war against the terrible dragon? But you are only a boy!”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “How am I to fight the most terrible of creatures in all the world? He will kill me with one swoop of his tail.” I was speaking as though I knew his dimensions, though I had nothing by which to compare his great size with accuracy.
“Yes, he is going to kill you,” Philip said and kicked my ankle from below to attain my glance. “I’m glad I’m not you, friend.” I laughed and looked at the ground. For once it seemed that another had received in truth the very real fear of a young lad.
“What else has your father said?” I asked hoping to get a prophecy that foretold of my victory against Otem.
“Nothing to me,” Philip said, “but he does converse with Sajon. He speaks to him often.”
“I would very much like to meet your father,” I said still looking at the ground.
“He has gone ahead of you into Rathland,” Philip said. “He has gone to speak with the Assembly.”
“Then my father must know of him if he is welcomed by the Assembly. My father is a bishop among its members. I’m sure I will gather with him in the morrow.”
“Perhaps,” Philip concluded. “Now shall you return to the feast or would you rather be absent and insult your gracious hosts?”
“I suppose you are right,” I said and stood up to leave. “Thank you for your visit, Philip. It was a pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise,” he said smiling, “I always enjoy meeting people that will soon become dragon fodder.” Again his wit was well received and it brought a sense of comfort. I laughed and nodded a farewell. Philip stayed put while I returned. Just as I came up out of the shadow of the tree, Madeline peeked around.
“Mother sent me to find you,” she said. “Are you well, Joshua?”
“I am well,” I said and leaned over to hug her. “It is only that I fear what is to come.”
“But you are a brave one, brother,” she said taking my hand. “Together we drove off the Pickers and it is all that Sajon can speak of at the feast. You are being heralded as having great valor.”
“Come, let us return,” I said and motioned for her to follow. We returned to our seats where we were both met by eager fellows requesting time to speak. Sajon sent them away and had his men show us to our sleeping quarters. He followed to be assured of our comfort.
“Tomorrow we will escort you into Rathland,” he said. “There is a price on many of our heads, but that is of little consequence. Our reputations precede us and you shall be quite safe.”
“Thank you for your kindness,” Mother said and led us into our tent.
“I and my men are your servants,” he said giving a slight bow. Mother returned a smile and then kissed Father on the cheek.
“Thank you, brother,” Father said kindly while shaking Sajon’s forearm with both hands. Father retreated to the tent, unrolled the tent door and extinguished the lantern. In the darkness, I heard him whispering to Mother.
“Tomorrow will be difficult for all,” he said as he attempted to get comfortable in his bedding. “We will be faced with many difficulties.”
“None so difficult as the unhappy wife of Sajon,” Mother said softly.
“She was rather unpleasant,” Father said still moving to get comfortable. “It is puzzling indeed.”
“Will she be traveling with us in the morning?” Mother asked.
“That I do not know.”
“There is something more to her discontent than we are aware,” Mother continued.
“Leave it be for now, Mother,” Father said. “Though I’m glad I’m not in Sajon’s bed tonight.” Mother gave a quiet giggle and nestled closer to Father. The evening noises of people moving about outside the tent kept me awake for only awhile. Madeline had already fallen asleep but was soon jarred awake as if she’d experienced a bad dream. It was not long before sleep was heavy upon me. I reached above my head and laid my hand upon the sword (which I had placed with the shield on the ground near the center tent post). Immediately I felt at ease and was able to sleep.