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Chapter Three – The Three Free Villages


The air was still wet, and no light were yet to be seen, for the sun had not yet risen. But outside the room was busy with noises of people hustling about. Inside the room, nothing much could be seen except for two other beds with two boys: Jama and Jorma.

Ardeth got up, he judged that it was nearing dawn, and soon lady Jor would call for them. He walked over to the side of his bed and picked up his sword that he had gotten from the boat. That incident was three years ago, but he remembered every detail of it.

‘Jama, Rhogan, Jorma!’ Lady Jor cried out from outside the room. ‘Get up!’

Almost like a reaction, Jorma got up, as if he heard his mother, even though he was in a deep sleep. Jama got up a while later. ‘Is it time?’ He asked. ‘I suppose.’ Answered Ardeth.

Most of the people of Arák were leaving to go to another village, Shirìsh, a village south and west to where Arák lie. It was the annual after harvest gathering, where merchants of the Free Villages, which include Arák, Shirìsh and Caarb, come together to trade. People also come from all the cities of the Guijan Kingdom and some strangers from places unheard of, to trade. The merchants of Arák had already left a few days ago, and now the peoples desirous of taking part in the market from Arák were getting ready to leave.

The three children went out of the room and ate the little food lady Jor had prepared. Then they went outside of the house. Here, people were already crowding the streets. The boys took the road that went to the creek that ran through Arák.

Here they met Han, a young boy, much like Jama, but a year older. He was already swimming in the creek (for that was how the boys of Arák preferred to bathe). There were also F¬owler and his younger brother Flak.

‘Hi there, Jama.’ Han greeted them. ‘And Rhogan.’

The boys greeted each other.

‘All ready to go?’ Fowler asked them.

‘You would be.’ Answered Han. ‘There would be no limit of things to eat.’ He teased for Fowler was a stout boy, and slow.

‘I sure am.’ Answered Ardeth for he had never been out of Arák for the years he had been there.

‘You would be too, Rhogan.’ Han spoke. ‘Prince, huh!’ Han had despised Ardeth, for before he came, he was the bully and leader amongst the young boys, but Ardeth grew taller than him, and was more skilled in fighting, and Han feared him, though he never let anyone know.

The boys had finished bathing and went and home. They got dressed and packed other pieces of there clothing, for the market was for an entire week. Ardeth took up his sword, for though he knew he would not need it, it seemed a good thing to take with you on a journey. He also wore his medallion wrought of gold for he knew that it was worth more than anything that would be for sale in the market, and he was proud of that. The boys again went outside, but now, there were fewer stairs and there was a red color to the east in the sky.

Jor was waiting outside for them. ‘Hurry, the dawn has begun.’ He led them through streets, in the same direction a lot of other persons were walking. The boys knew exactly where he was taking them, to the boats. The creek they bathed in ran into a river that led out to the sea and came from farther south. It was not a wide river, and it was not deep. The boys could swim in it if they wish, but it was mainly used for transporting between the three villages. At the edge of the river were many boats, made of wood, and only small enough to carry three persons. But there were many of these, enough to carry a small army into battle. Jorma climbed into the one with his mother, into this boat also went Jor. Jama and Ardeth went into another boat.

The boats soon filled up, and the sky became lighter. Ardeth then notice that ahead, the chief was boarding a boat, with him were his wife and Kari.

Kari, seeing Ardeth, ran towards their boat and entered it.

‘Good morning the both of you.’ She greeted them. ‘Could I come with you?’

‘Morning miss Kari.’ Answered Jama, now feeling a little crowded, for he liked that the boat he rode in was empty, except for Ardeth, and thus comfortable. ‘Why…?’

‘Sure you can.’ Answered Ardeth. ‘It was only two of us anyway.’

And so the boats set out. They rode slowly and together. Often the boats were so close that people shared a late breakfast, amongst boats, for those who had not eaten, and many older folks were engaged in conversations.

The sun rose, but that did not affect the people, for often the river was totally shaded by trees that stretched their branches until they interlock overhead like a huge never-ending roof. Not long after the river branched into two directions, one to the southeast and the other southwest. Here, more boats were met from the people coming out of the southeastern branch of the river and joined them. These people were as Jama said, of the Caarb village, and they had traveled since dinner the previous day to reach them. Here the company of boats halted for a while until all was greeted and friendly hellos were said and news exchanged. Then off gain the boats went down the southwestern branch.

This river, Jama explained, was the Shirìsh River, named after the Shirìsh people. Then suddenly, as if separated clearly by some great being, the kind of trees that had surrounded them all ended, and a new kind began. Tall and eerie, and slender they were, and were brown and almost bare of leaves thus provided no shade. Luckily, the sun was not at noonday’s strength yet.

‘Why are these trees so different?’ Ardeth asked. ‘They are frightening to look upon.’

‘They are called the Tarsbis trees. And they are so because it was how they were grown.’ Answered Kari. ‘A well tended garden will have flowers growing undisturbed, and its flowers be large and bright. But here the ground is no more.’ And as she said this Ardeth saw that the bottoms of these trees were below a swamp, an extension of the river they now rode, but full of weed and undergrowth. ‘It was this way since the people of my village came, and will be till the end.’ Kari finished.

At lunch, the boats stopped. They huddled together in close formation, and the people shared amongst themselves whatever food they had. Every one was talking, and it made the Tarsbis trees seem pleasant.

‘So will you row this afternoon?’ Jama asked Ardeth. ‘My arms are tired already.’

‘Ok.’ He answered.

‘The stranger?’ Asked Han, who was in a boat besides them. ‘He know nothing of boats, and would soon sink all of you.’

‘Are you forgetting?’ Asked Jama. ‘That he came from the great Rhorim? In a vessel wrought of metal?’

Han became quiet again.

‘Why does he pick on you so, Rhogan?’ Asked Kari. ‘You are much bigger, though not older, and could beat him in a fight of words or fists.’

‘And that is exactly why he fights.’ Ardeth spoke. ‘For even though I could beat him, I would not try, and he takes advantage of it.’

After lunch, the boats journeyed off again. Ardeth found that he was very skilled in steering the boats. He sometimes steered through the great hosts of boats to the front, then slowed, and goes to the rear, without letting the boat ever touching any other (and this required great skill for the river was not wide and there were many boats close together).

One of the times he was in front, he noticed that the Tarsbis trees ended, and rode even farther ahead of the group, for he disliked the trees. The new trees were green, and the grounds beneath which their roots grow were sturdy and green.

‘Thus ends the Tarsbis forest.’ Said Kari. ‘These trees are from the border of the Lindor forests to the east.’

And as she said this, Ardeth noticed that the trees were thicker on the left, to the east. On the right were scattered trees with far stretching grasslands.

Eventually, the water of the river also changed from its muddy brown to a clear flowing stream. The other boats had not caught up to them yet when they saw that there was a clearing in the forest to the east. There was a broken road here, long forgotten by those who made it, and seldom used. For the people now usually prefer boats than horses. Where the road ended by the side of the river were the remnants of an old bridge, broken and unusable.

‘And what is that road called?’ Ardeth asked, pointing to the road in the east and its continuation in the west.

‘We do not know.’ Answered Kari. ‘None now ever uses it.’

‘Nay, not none.’ Jama spoke, and pointed eastward.

Far up the road, a stranger could clearly be seen riding towards the river upon a horseback. He was heavily clad and was riding with great speed.

‘Well he’s an idiot.’ Jama spoke again. ‘How does he plan on crossing the river?’ ‘Who is he?’ Ardeth asked.

‘I don’t know. He is not of the Caarb village, that’s for sure. He might be a rider of the kingdom of Guijan, they dress like that in times of war.’

It was late afternoon when the group caught up with them, for Jama, Ardeth and Kari had begun eating a snack and the boat was drifting by itself.

‘Fastest rower I’ve seen in a while, Rhogan.’ Greeted Carur, the rower of the front boat of the hosts. ‘Messages will always fall unto hearing ear, and in time, if you carry it.’

‘Thank you, Sir Carur.’ Ardeth answered.

It was just beginning to get dark, and the first stair had appeared when the boats reached Shirìsh. There were many people by the edge of the river ready to greet the guests as they arrived. The Chiefs of Arák and Caarb and their wives got out first, and hey were escorted to their quarters.

When it was their turn, Ardeth Jama and Kari got out of the boat, and took along with them their baggage. Lady Jor was waiting on the bank with Jorma, and a young boy, who Ardeth did not know, was standing besides her.

‘Your tents will be on the south side of the square. Meoc here will direct you. Change and be ready for the opening feast.’ Lady Jor spoke, and then went off southwards. ‘Hi.’ The little boy called Meoc said. ‘Follow me.’

The five, Ardeth, Jama, Kari, Jorma and Meoc, went southwards. Meoc led them through a narrow street that was full of people busying about with baggage and other things from the boats. The street ended in a large open field. In the field were set up many tents and lamps, and in the middle of this were large tables with many chairs. Many people were about setting things down, and moving things.

‘The market square.’ Proclaimed Meoc. ‘But for tonight, the opening feast. I bet you’re excited.’

‘At seeing the many weapons displayed tomorrow for sale, yes.’ Answered Jama.

‘Seeing the many fine clothing and jewelry.’ Answered Kari.

‘Excited in being at the feast.’ Said Jorma.

‘And what about you, Rhogan.’ Asked Meoc.

‘How did you know my name?’ Asked Ardeth.

‘News travel faster than you can imagine.’ He replied. ‘You were found three years ago on the shore?’

‘Yes I was.’

‘Many tales were heard of you, that you carry a sword beyond the making of the Guijan, and a medallion like those worn by our Chiefs.’

‘Really?’

‘Is it true that you are better with the sword than any in our villages? Can I see your sword? Can I see your medallion? Please?’ Meoc begged.

Ardeth looked around people were still busying with what they were doing, and these groups of children were like many others across the square. Ardeth reached to his side and unsheathed his sword. It glimmered faintly in the moonlight.

The sound the sword made caused a few heads to turn, and Ardeth quickly sheathed it. They children now passed among the tables, which were all laden with fine cloth.

‘Your seats will be with you families.’ Meoc instructed.

Farther south they walked until al last they came to a few hastily built houses. Away to their right, the village of Shirìsh stood, much like Arák. Beyond the village stood, high above the hoses and trees, the remnants of a tower, unused. Little of it was seen in the night. Meoc led them to one of the hastily built houses.

‘You will be housed here for the remainder of the market.’ He said to them then led them inside. The house, or tent, was more comfortable than it seemed. It could easily house a small family, and thus four children were no problem. Meoc left them and went away.

‘Assemble when you hear the horn.’ He said before he left.

The four changed into their fine clothes and sat, talking noisily. They had had a light dinner, and already their stomachs growled.

‘You rowed far ahead, Rhogan, the people were worried, especially our Chief.’ Spoke Jorma.

‘Only to get out of those eerie trees.’ Said Ardeth. Then he remembered the horseman, the group of boats would have seen him closer, for by then, he would’ve reached the river.

‘Did the people know who the horseman was?’ Asked Ardeth.

‘What horseman?’ Question Jorma. ‘We saw no horseman.’

The other three looked at each other.

‘There is no other road.’ Said Jama. ‘At least none that I know of.’

‘Nothing to worry about.’ Ardeth spoke after a while. ‘I’m sure, as you had said, that he was a horseman from the Guijan kingdom, he is probably here tonight.’ But Ardeth wished that he did not have to see that rider again, for there was an air or power and menace about him.

‘So, Rhogan.’ Spoke Kari, after a while. ‘This is your first market, it is not?’

‘Yes.’ Answered Ardeth.

‘You will love the things you see.’ Chimed in Jama. ‘The weapons of Caarb are plenty and cheap, and we could buy some.’

‘If dad allows.’ Broke in Jorma.

‘But you’ll love those of Guijan. The weapon makers there are skilled.’ Continued Jama, and then looked at Ardeth’s sword besides him. ‘Though what that Meoc said was right. None of the Guijan swords can compare to yours. You should carry it around, to show off a bit’

‘And let someone steal it?’ questioned Kari.

‘There are thieves here?’ Question Ardeth.

‘Of course. Thousands of people gathered from unknown places, there are sure to be a few thieves and murderers about.’

‘All the more reason to walk with my sword.’ Answered Ardeth.

‘What?’ Questioned Kari.

‘So that I can protect you from these thieves and murderers.’ Answered Ardeth, Kari blushed.

‘The food is great. More than you’ve ever eaten.’ Jorma said, breaking the awkward silence. ‘When will they sound that horn?’

‘Jorma, you will get fat when you’re older.’ Said Kari.

‘How?’ Question Jama. ‘Can’t you see his size? He’ll grow up to be a stick. What say you Rhogan?’

But Ardeth was silent. He was thinking about the tower he had seen earlier. Tall it was, and dark. Yet fair it seemed, and it was calling to Ardeth, and he wanted to go. ‘Where is that tower?’ He asked.

‘The ruins?’ Asked Jama. ‘Half-a-days walk on foot. We could get there and back after exploring everything, before dinner, if we leave early enough.’

‘And we’re allowed to leave?’ Ardeth asked.

‘No one’s stopping us.’ Jama said. ‘I went there before, nothing much to see, except ancient texts and tall stairs to nowhere.’

‘If you’re going, I have to come too.’ Said Kari. ‘I’ve always loved adventures.’

‘No you haven’t.’ Said Jama.

‘Well, you’ll need the grace of a lady in such a dark place.’

‘I have to come too.’ Spoke Jorma. ‘Because, Jama, you know if I don’t, father will find out. None of us knew you went before, you know.’

‘Very well.’ Grunted Jama.

‘It settled then, when could we go?’ Asked Ardeth.

‘Anytime during the week.’ Answered Jama. ‘I’ll get some of the boys I went with the last time. They’re from Shirìsh, at least most of them are. They know the way well. We’ll decide the day tomorrow.’

Ardeth became excited, though he didn’t know why. He loved the tower as he set eyes on it.

Not long after, the horn sound out. It echoed far into the woods and throughout the village. The four went outside, they wondered where they might find their families amid all the people gathering to the square, when, against the current of people came running Meoc. ‘Follow me.’ He said, almost out of breath. ‘I will direct you.’ Then he turned to Kari. ‘I did not know you were the daughter of the Chief of Arák. I was told where you were to sit, then I realized. A wonderful group of guest I have to attend. Both Rhogan the boy from the sea, and Kari, daughter of the Chief of Arák are in it.’

‘Nothing special, I assure you.’ Answered Ardeth. ‘What a horn! It was loud, surely anyone far away could have heard it, and that was not needed.’

‘The horn was not made for gatherings of feasts.’ Answered Meoc. ‘It is one of the three great horns of the Free villages. Arák have one. Have you never heard it?’

‘No.’

‘That horn is in the great hall.’ Spoke Kari.

‘It was used in times of old when war fell upon us. The people of Guijan gave them to us to aid them. Arák would sound the horn if the enemy came from the sea, and Shirìsh, if they came on land. The Caarb will relay the message to Luijan, the guard fortress. And they then relay it to the main city of the Guijan. But war had not happen for a generation, and there is much hope for peace.’

Ardeth was wondering whom the kingdom of Guijan wars with, and hoped that it was not his Kingdom of Atlantia. I am a prince of that Kingdom, he thought. The people of Guijan could kidnap me for ransom from my kingdom. Rumors that I am a prince no doubt reached those parts. I hope that was not the purpose of the rider we saw. I have to be most careful. Just then, he saw Lady Jor, already seated. Jama, Jorma and himself took up their seats while Kari was taken to the head of the same table. After that, Meoc went away, again, on another business.

Ardeth then realized the arrangement of the tables. Three large tables were in the center of the square. The one he sat in was to the west, and had the Chief and councilors of Arák and their families. The other tables to the west, behind Ardeth, sat the other people of Arák. The center table had the Headmen of Shirìsh, while the center table to the east had the Chief and councilors of Caarb. The people of Caarb, who Ardeth recognized because they had come together along the river, were seated farther east, beyond the Caarb head table. To the south of the head tables were empty tables, Ardeth guessed that they were for the people of Shirìsh, when they were ready. To the north was constructed a small stage area, from a wooden platform built a little higher off the ground.

The stairs were all visible, and not a cloud was in the night sky. The moon, though not yet full, cast a bright light over the square, and the lamps the villagers had set up added to its brilliance.

After most of the persons were seated (some now took up the southern tables) the Chief of Shirìsh came with his family (a son and a daughter) and sat at the head of the middle table. One of the men got up from that table, went to the stage, and blew the horn he carried. Again the horn echoed throughout the region.

‘Welcome!’ The man announced. ‘To the village of Shirìsh, and the marketplace of the Three Free Villages.’

The people cheered, for they pride themselves in being free, their own rulers, with no king. ‘Before we begin feasting…’ The announcer began again; there were murmurs from the crowd. ‘…words from the Chiefs of our villages.’

He got down and went back to his seat at the middle table.

Chief Kadgan of the Caarb village first went up. He was similarly built like Chief Hebalb, indeed, most of the peoples of the three villages were. ‘Once again we have gathered to celebrate what we have earned. I have nothing to say except that this long period of absence of wars has enabled Caarb to advance and focus on other more important things.’ He stepped down and there were cheers and applause, especially from the people of Caarb.

Chief Hebalb stood up next. ‘Peace, a word we have longed for, and now we have it. May it be that long it remains with us.’ There were more cheers, and the Chief was about to step down when a figure from the southern table stood up.

He was the same rider that the three had seen riding up the road. He was still clad in his heavy traveling clothes, and was well armed, having a sword by his side, with a bow across his back. But the stranger was old, with a long gray beard, and a walking staff by his side. ‘Great Chief of the Arakaynians, where is this boy that you spoke of? The Prince, you had boasted of at the last opening dinner?’ The stranger asked.

‘Stranger from afar, as you have asked previously, I have brought him with me.’ Chief Hebalb turned to Ardeth. ‘Arise child. This is Ardeth O’Atlantia. Or as I named him, Rhogan.’ Ardeth stood up. The stranger looked at him with piercing eyes and Ardeth quickly sat down. ‘May this market be the best that we’ve ever witnessed.’ Ended Chief Hebalb, and stepped down. Chief of the Shirìsh, Chief Anülad, got up.

‘I welcome all, the Caarbs, the Arakaynians, the peoples of Guijan, and all others from afar.’ As e said this, he stared at the stranger who asked the question, and Ardeth realized that the stranger was not from the Guijan kingdom. ‘Once again I have the honor of welcoming you to the market of our Three Free Villages. And proud indeed I am to say that. Free we are, never troubled by the wars of other men. The Guijan we help, for they are our neighbors. Even so, long it was since war had ever rapped at our doors, and I am grateful. Not since the times of our fathers have we seen blood shed in our villages. And I hope that it will be so for a very long time.

‘Never-the-less.’ He continued. ‘We have a greater host of people from the Guijan Kingdom this year.’ Here he motioned to a host of people on the southern tables, all clothed in traveling wear, but most looked young and stronger, much like warriors.

‘Before we begin the feast, for the first time ever, we shall allow one amongst them willing to share news of good tidings and to declare the feast started.’ Chief Anülad sat down. The host of warriors from Guijan talked amongst themselves, never had they been asked o do such a thing in the Free Villages. Eventually one stood up, their leader.

‘I am Anul, Leader of the warriors of Luijan. Thank you, kind Chief for such an honor. Peace you speak off, and we realized how much you were affected by our wars. We have nothing to say, which all would find as good news. I hope that this is the beginning of what would be a great friendship between our kingdom and you group of villages. I guess that all that is left now is to say that the feast is declared open.’

There were many cheers, and the horn was blown again, lightly this time. Most of the peoples of Shirìsh came forth with trays of food and drinks. These were first given to the head tables first, then to the tables designated for the outsiders. Ardeth had never been to such a feast for all the time he had been in Arák. Never had he gone to a market, and was now disappointed that the only reason he was brought was because the Chief had promised a stranger he would.

They ate, and much too. And there were talks and gaffs, and many people got up from their seats to chat with their friends and people from other villages whom they had come to know well. Ardeth kept a close eye on the stranger, he had not moved, and ate quietly. But always he kept his staff in his hand, even as he ate. Ardeth realized that his staff was of metal, and a stone was on top. The top had a crown-like shape, with spears at the tips of the points of it. Within this crown-like shape was the crystal. Ardeth thought this weird, then accepted that the man had probably come from a wealthy kingdom, or was a lord or prince from where he came.

Ardeth felt for his sword, it was safely by his side. At his table were Jor, The Chief and other high members (who were warriors too) of the Chief’s court. There was no chance that the stranger could attack or try to kidnap him tonight.

Near to the end of the feast, a light entertainment began. There were dances and songs sung, poems were recited. Anyone who felt inclined to do something went unto the stage. Everyone had a great time, and was laughing.

Presently, one of the warriors of Guijan came up to Ardeth. Ardeth realized that it was the leader, Anul of Luijan.

‘Rhogan, beware.’ He whispered into Ardeth’s ear. ‘The stranger has not lifted his eyes off of you. He is of the strange folk we like to call wizards. But wizards are usually wise, and less concerned with men. Do not fight with him. Your might is not match for his magic. Run if he comes near.’

And the stranger went on by. None could tall that he had spoken to Ardeth. The stranger then went to the Chief and spoke of affairs Ardeth could not understand. But the stranger had seen the message delivered, and is face grew red with anger. His staff began to glow softly, eerily. He got up and went away, but to where, Ardeth knew not.

After a while dancing had begun. Kari came up to Ardeth, took him by the hand, and pulled him to dance. Jama went away and after a while came back with a friend of his, a girl, and they too danced.

All thoughts were gone from Ardeth of the wizard. They danced till their feet got weary, and yet danced. As they did most of the tables and chairs were cleared away. Drinks were still plenty.

It was not until about mid-night that the dancing stopped. All was bid to take to their tents. It was difficult for the group to finds theirs had not Meoc come back. He was to camp with them, and give them a tour of the village in the morning, for the market will start in the afternoon (it took a while to clear the arrangements of the feast).

The five stayed up even longer, talking about things real and unreal (or so they thought). It was in the end that Ardeth told them of the wizard and the warning.

‘Long days of peace all the Chiefs had said.’ Spoke Kari at last. ‘How do we not know that it is just a preparation time for a greater war yet to come? And what of this wizard business?’ With that everyone became silent until they all fell asleep, Ardeth the last.

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