It was night.
A fire crackled.
He felt the warmth of Staboros by his side.
“A clever horse, there.
Seems it was also the one that pulled you from the river.
Even when I found you that horse was curled up beside you, providing its warmth,”
came a voice from beyond a bonfire.
A woman’s voice.
“If you can get up, then do so and eat.
I used some of the dried meat you kept in your bag.
Some of the dried bread too.”
His body was wrapped in a cloak that was stuffed with grass.
He tried to sit up, yet found it difficult.
His body simply refused to listen.
“Your clothes have long since dried.
I advise you to put them on first,”
the owner of the voice said as she stood up and approached Baldo.
It was an old woman.
So thick were the years painted on her face, that it was impossible to tell her age.
Her hair was white and her skin was covered in wrinkles, yet there was nary a wobble in her step.
With the old woman’s help, Baldo somehow managed to get his body to move like he wished it and so managed to put on his underwear, shirt, and pants.
He then started to eat.
In the pot from Baldo’s belongings there was a stew made from jerky and roots with the dried bread mixed in.
Slowly he ate the meal.
“I imagine you fell into the river because you were in poor condition and lost your footing, am I correct?
Though, I would rather you tell me the details.”
He told the old woman everything he remembered.
He was ascending a mountain when his body began to feel sluggish.
Then before long did his hands and feet start to grow terribly cold.
After that, his heart started to race, and his breathing turned rough.
Upon climbing down to a large stream to drink water did his head start to burn as if on fire, and it was then that he lost consciousness.
It was not food poisoning, nor was it chronic illness.
Never before had Baldo experienced something like it.
“Just as I thought.
Since the medicine was effective, I knew it must be the case.
Did you on your travels happen to spot a plant with spiny, purple fruits the size of a fist growing atop?”
I passed by an area where they grew aplenty, replied Baldo.
I’d never seen vegetation like it, so it left quite the impression.
Upon hearing this response, the old woman sank deeply into thought before saying,
“I’m sorry to ask you this.
Once you recover your strength in the morning, could you show to me to this location?”
Baldo was deeply indebted to the old woman.
To collapse on the road was to surrender all your valuables to any passersby, with but a small chance that they would leave you a single prayer in return.
He did not know how it was in the city, but to lose consciousness in the frontier, let alone a place so far from any settlements, one could not hope for anything more.
Yet it seemed this old woman had taken care of Baldo when he was on the verge of death.
For this withered old woman to move and undress a man as sturdy as Baldo was surely a daunting task.
So too did she dry his clothes by the fire.
So too did she remove Baldo’s sword from it’s scabbard and allow it to dry.
So too did she warm his body with the fire and prepare him a meal.
It must have been difficult to gather all of the firewood as well.
She had apparently even administered such precious medicine to him.
Baldo was willing to do everything he could if the old woman desired it.
When the day dawned, Baldo’s condition had not yet recovered enough that he might walk long distances.
He ate his meal and took the medicine made by the old woman.
It was a decoction of several types of herbs.
It could restore the body’s vitality, she said.
When he asked the old woman her name, she responded that nowadays, they all called her the witch.
Though a nickname it may be, an unfortunate one it was.
What a terrible name ‘witch’ is.
Surely you did not give it to yourself.
The old woman then slowly started to recount the story of her life.
She used to live in a small village hidden in the mountains, far away from this spot.
When she was young, her mother brought her along through the village, and since she helped the ailing there, the villagers asked her to take up residence in the area.
Her mother was an exceptional herbalist.
She too was brought up in the herbalist trade and eventually followed in her steps, remaining in that village even after the passing of her mother.
Herbalists were a revered existence in the frontier.
If anything happened, people would come from far and wide to request her medicine.
For decades did she tend to the injuries and ailments of many, and although she did not experience much change over the years, that too became a form of happiness that continued into her elderly days.
Everything changed with the arrival of a plague.
She had learned of this affliction from her late mother, but the ingredients required for the medicine were expensive and uncommon; rare were they in the frontier.
One by one were the villagers infected by the disease, and soon the weakest of the lot started to die.
The woman herself possessed a strong body fortified by the consumption of many herbs over the years, and so she did not contract the illness.
However a girl she treated as if her own flesh and blood started to develop symptoms.
The truth was the woman did in fact have medicine enough for one dose.
It was left to her by her late mother.
So too did her mother leave a warning that she must only use this medicine on herself.
Disobeying her mother’s words, the woman gave the girl the medicine.
Thus was the girl saved from the clutches of death.
The villagers learned of this and yearned for the remedy.
They were deaf to her excuses, that she had no more left.
When in the end the plague departed, the woman had naught but resentment from the villagers.
Even very the girl she saved hated her.
Her own parents were without medicine and succumbed to the illness.
Why didn’t that old hag get sick? said one of the villagers.
Now that you mention it, that hag’s been completely fine, said another.
How long has she even been alive? said another.
She was already an old hag the day my grandpa was born, said another.
She must be a tohrael.1
She didn’t know who started the rumor.
However, no one questioned it.
They were both human and inhuman—female existences that formed contracts with beyadrue2 and practiced black magic.
Through a beyadrue’s blessing were they granted longevity, and they kept many secrets.
No wonder she could concoct such effective medicines.
Was it truly medicine she fed us?
A beyadrue’s protection required an offering in return.
Just how many villagers did this tohrael offer to the beyadrue?
Now it makes sense!
This very plague was certainly the work of the tohrael.
The villagers surrounded the woman’s hut, tied her to a stake, and set fire to the entire thing.
The story of the old woman ended thus, and Baldo could not help but ask,
How did you survive?
The fact that I’m here means someone must have saved me.
Perhaps it was someone who was indebted to me or my mother,”
replied the woman with a smile, no longer speaking about the incident.
Had she truly been burned alive yet managed to escape death, that would make her the very definition of a tohrael.
Baldo however was a man with backbone and did not give easily in to superstition, and so he refused to believe anything he could not see with his own eyes.
He had fought kaejel3 and knew there were curious creatures known as gyelganos4, but he refused to believe in such existences as beyadrue and tohrael.
Many times before had he met tribesfolk who called themselves things like shatorli5 or torlira corlaché.6
Though they did occasionally possess great knowledge, they did not have powers beyond the realm of mankind.
Their shanoh7 and deybayu8 were but applications of little-known fields of study or at the very least mere sleight of hand.
Countless times had he heard accounts of beyadrue and tohrael, but in all instances they were but falsehood born from the darkness in the hearts of men.
Why then did this old woman then not harbor darkness in her heart as well, scorned and burned alive by the very people who received her blessings.
Just what was it that resided in her heart?
“The illness you contracted came about when you inhaled dust from a ruptured gheriadra fruit.
However that was not dust.
They are the very, very small eggs of an insect that lives in the fruit.
These eggs will only hatch inside of a human body.
Once they hatch, they will then attempt to turn their host into a more hospitable environment.
If you take medicine before the eggs hatch, then the eggs will die and the sickness will go away.
Once the eggs hatch, there is nothing that can be done to save the afflicted.”
The old woman opened her pouch and showed Baldo a small nut.
“If you grind this goliosa nut into a fine powder and then drink it, the eggs in your body will die.
Both you and I have just ingested it, and so for three days we will not grow sick.
Goliosa nuts have no other medicinal use.
Both gheriadra and goliosa are very rare, however.
For some inexplicable reason, wherever gheriadra grows in abundance so too shall goliosa.
I was shocked when I first came to this mountain.
I could spot goliosa nuts wherever I looked.
I must find and eradicate all patches of gheriadra.
This is the duty of an herbalist.”
She remains an herbalist to this day, thought Baldo.
I surrendered my fief, parted with my lord, left alone on a journey to my death, and yet I am still a knight.
Perhaps we are the same.
Baldo eventually recovered enough strength to move, and so the two departed.
He had no choice but to sit astride Staboros.
He was sorry for the horse, to burden it further with the weight of him and his equipment, but he did not feel comfortable tarrying any longer.
They continued along the stream for a bit, and in a stroke of good luck, it turned out the place Baldo fell was not far from their encampment.
He would have no trouble guiding the old woman then to the place with the purple fruits.
“Would you look at this.
Rarely have I seen so many.”
A section of the mountainside was densely packed with gheriadra.
The area covered by the vegetation seemed as if it could fit fifty huts.
Green stalks as thick as a finger were entwined all about each other, reaching up as tall as a man’s shoulder.
At the very tip of the stalks were growing a fruit each, covered in lumpy protuberances.
The fruits that were still small were green.
As they grew larger, the stalk they were atop began to droop down from the weight, and the fruit started to take on a noxious purple hue.
Once fully ripe, the fruit would apparently split open, releasing a cloud of eggs that would result in a mysterious illness.
The broken fruits looked as if they were a demonic maw, open wide and poised ready to feast on passersby.
“I’m amazed so few of the fruits have opened, considering the sheer amount.
How fortunate our timing was.”
If released, the eggs would be carried far away on the wind.
Though there were no settlements nearby, and travelers rarely came by these parts, Baldo could see how many victims might appear if left unchecked.
As Baldo was preoccupied with these thoughts, the old woman continued in an ominous tone,
“Once the eggs enter a person’s body, the host will fall into a slumber as deep as death.
The eggs inside the body hatch, the insects eat the host from the inside out, and then they continue to lay eggs.
The insects truly prefer to stay inside of the body.
Once they consume the inside of the body in its entirely, however, the eggs they lay even begin to spill outside it.
These eggs that ooze from from the body are then carried by the wind to find yet another host.
Once the situation unfolds to such a level, there is no longer any way to stop it.
The eggs released from a single host will wipe out a village, and in the end, entire kingdoms will crumble to ruin.”
Have there ever been kingdoms that fell in such a manner? asked Baldo.
Had these insects created such a catastrophe in the past, surely they should be more well-known, thought Baldo.
Heh-heh-heh, the woman gave an eerie chuckle,
“Perhaps there have been.”
The night was steadily approaching.
The two of them climbed down to the stream and set up camp.
Baldo caught fish, and the old woman foraged for edible plants.
Baldo filled his pot with water and placed it atop a makeshift firepit.
The old woman placed a meager amount of withered branches and leaves beneath the pot and to Baldo said,
“Light the fire, will you?”
I wonder if we could use a bit more tinder, thought Baldo, but carrying out the old woman’s request, he struck a spark off some flint to set the dried leaves alight, and then deftly stacked the branches atop one another to create the kindling.
Eyes half-shut, the old woman opened both hands, palms toward the fire, and under her breath whispered some indistinct words.
It was as if a hum.
As she did, the fire jumped from the kindling and started to consume the branches.
To Baldo it was an unnatural scene.
The branches should have yet to catch fire, and yet they already had.
It was as if the flames contained a will, and it was prancing nimbly of its own volition.
In mere moments was there a vigorous fire to warm the pot, yet how could this be?
The flames were far too strong for the small amount of tinder that supported them.
So too were the branches that Baldo expected to reach their limit in moments still burning strong.
“For arts such as these to work, there must be a seed.
To create something out of nothing is the dominion of the gods.
There are few capable of such a feat.
If you have even the smallest of seeds, however, then you can make it larger, make it appear larger as well.
You understand the power with which the flames burn and the forces that cause the flames to rise, and then you call upon them.
The leaves, the branches, the fire, the wind—you call upon all of them.
The pot and the water as well—all of them,”
muttered the old woman, her two open palms swaying back and forth above the fire.
Before long did the water start to boil.
That was far too quick, thought Baldo.
The old woman retrieved the jerky from Baldo’s belongings and tore off pieces into the water.
Then she added yam, mountain herbs, a trace of rock salt, and medicinal spices to the pot.
The tiny branches continued to burn without end.
“You see, that’s the thing.
If you find you must contend against nohgelga9 and noh’el10, then it’s quite simple.
You must see through the truth and strengthen your will.
If you can do that, you will find there is nothing to it.”
As he listened to the old woman’s words, Baldo grilled a fish over the fire.
Part of Baldo wished to ask the old woman about the strange, ever-burning branches, but he somehow knew it was best for him to listen, engraving the old woman’s words into his heart.
Perhaps Baldo witnessed something at this moment that would completely overturn the knowledge he cultivated over his life.
Yet he felt nary the slightest bit of menace or evil from this scene.
Perhaps he was witnessing things as they should be, properly existing in their proper form, yet he himself was simply never aware of this truth.
After leisurely finishing his meal did Baldo listen to the old woman’s teachings, drinking the concoction she prescribed.
Staboros was grazing on grass nearby.
Aside from the fodder and vegetables, horses were creatures who often spent nearly half of their waking hours grazing on grass.
As it had two large yams today and time to leisurely eat in the morning, Staboros was in a fine mood.
As to conserve their strength, the two people and one animal went quickly to sleep.
A large stack of firewood was piled high before the old woman.
Many coynencily trees grew nearby, bark thick with a natural oil, so Baldo picked up as many of it’s fallen branches as he could.
To start the fire, they collected a small pile of long, narrow coynencily leaves and thin, broad polpom leaves, dried and fallen to the ground.
It would be but a simple task to cut down the gheriadra stalks.
Though it would take some time to accomplish, it was by no means a difficult endeavor.
To do so, however, would leave the remnants of the stalks below the earth.
The roots of all the gheriadra in this area were connected, so it could be said in this whole area was in fact one large plant.
Gheriadra by nature lacked resilience; often did they wither and die even upon breaking through the earth.
Once they grew to a certain extent, however, did the plant suddenly turn robust, driving all other vegetation away and spreading its roots through the ground.
Thus to eradicate this accursed plant, one must with great flame incinerate it to its very core.
Then where do the insects that infest it come from?
asked Baldo to which the old woman replied that she did not know.
It was said that inside all gheriadra fruit were insect eggs without fail.
Perhaps they were not insects in fact, but some kind of plant matter.
Perhaps the gheriadra itself was not a plant in fact, but some kind of creature.
Were I to ever meet a great scholar in this field, I would certainly love to ask, said the old woman.
“Please do it,”
came the old woman’s signal, and so Baldo struck the flint.
Sparks danced from the stone and set a polpom leaf aflame.
In an instant did the small flame spread to five and then six other leaves.
Then the fire spread to the brown, withered coynencily leaves, and the flames started to crackle.
Baldo backed up without a word as to not be in the way.
The old woman closed her eyes, brought her hands together, and began an indiscernible chant.
It was a barely-audible chant, soft and humble, yet before long did it start to grow in strength.
Never before had Baldo heard such words.
He could not even guess what they might mean.
The ballad she recited flowed forth with majestic cadence, as if from the mouth of a seasoned bard.
From behind, the old woman no longer looked small, no longer looked weak.
She opened her hands with grand expression.
Powerfully did the flames surge and climb, engulfing all of the wood.
Basking in the wave of heat, Baldo for a moment felt as if his skin caught aflame.
Baldo slowly started to descend the hill.
Once the flames started to spread, he should retreat to the marshes beyond the stream, was the advice from the old woman.
The horse had long been moved there along with the old woman’s belongings.
If I truly need to retreat so far as to be safe, then what about you? asked Baldo.
“No harm will come to me, even if I’m set aflame—don’t you remember?”
was the response the old woman gave.
Baldo was skeptical of the conclusions the old woman drew from her tale, but he followed her instructions in earnest, for she was a wise herbalist and surely had many tricks up her sleeve.
Baldo turned to witness the fire once more before leaving, and then suddenly spotted a giant rohwargle11 aiming to attack the old woman.
Baldo drew his sword and rushed to her aid.
Though the rohwargle bore the word ‘wargle’12 in its name, it was in fact a member of the nahda13 family.
It appeared as if it were a giant wargle flattened into the ground, and thus was it given that name.
Its hide was spotted with green, yellow, lime, and brown.
It blended among the trees and grass, so it was strangely difficult to spot.
The entire front half of its body was a vicious maw, and the rows of jagged teeth that sprouted within inspired terror by their lethality.
Its outward hide was slimy yet tough, and furthermore it possessed an exoskeleton like armor just beneath it, rendering swords nigh ineffective.
The rohwargle that was making an attempt at the old woman was larger than anything Baldo had ever seen, even taller than a man.
I must make it in time,
thought Baldo as he rushed forward, yet the rohwargle at that moment opened its jaw and leaped.
So too did Baldo jump.
Just as the rohwargle’s monstrous maw was poised to reach the old woman’s body did Baldo slam himself against the side of the creature.
Baldo was thrown back, landing with a heavy thud atop the grass, but his reckless lunge was not in vain, for the rohwargle’s attack barely missed the old woman, and it instead crashed into the pile of firewood, sending fiery sparks into the air.
Surely did the fire hurt, for the rohwargle flailed about in displeasure, sweeping the fragments of flame away, and slowly turned to look at Baldo.
As if recognizing Baldo as its opponent.
The best course of action would then be to flee and lead the rohwargle away.
As he tried to stand, however, did a fierce pain surge through his chest and hips.
I won’t be able to escape like this.
came the sound as the rohwargle gave chase.
Though its legs were short, the creature was uncannily quick.
It traversed ten or twenty paces in an instant, stopped to breathe once, then repeated the process once more—this was how the rohwargle moved.
For whatever reason, it could not run in a straight line.
It veered a bit to the left then a bit to the right, bounding forward in a jigsaw pattern.
In the final stage of its pursuit would it then leap upon its prey.
Baldo saw through the creature’s movements in the very last moment, and he jumped to the right the very instant the rohwargle leaped.
Since he could not run far, Baldo devised to lead the rohwargle to a place thick with trees so that he could limit the creature’s movements.
The rohwargle was even faster and more nimble than Baldo had predicted.
Baldo dodged the creature’s third attack, however, running in a jigsaw pattern, and he successfully managed to escape into the forest.
So too did the rohwargle bound after Baldo into the woods.
Baldo hid behind a tree as thick as a man’s thigh, but it snapped like a twig under the creature’s leaping assault.
The splintering tree struck Baldo in his left shoulder, launching him back, yet as fortune had it, the blow saved him from the clutches of the wargle’s massive jaws.
Baldo continued to flee toward a place with several study trees.
No matter how powerful this creature may be, surely it could not destroy trees that thick.
Furthermore was the space between the trees too small for the rohwargle to enter.
With this could Baldo earn a moment of respite.
With these thoughts, however, was a crucial miscalculation.
The wargle jumped at Baldo.
In an incredible feat of maneuverability, the monstrous rohwargle turned its body midair, passing through the gap in the trees nearly completely on its side, and flew at Baldo.
At that moment, Baldo suddenly felt something with his left hand.
It was a piece of wood from when Baldo was gathering tinder.
The rohwargle’s mouth was open wide.
Just before Baldo’s eyes were rows of jagged teeth and a seemingly venomous bile that coated the inside of its maw.
Baldo thrusted the piece of wood deeply into the creature’s mouth.
It tried to close its mouth and rip off Baldo’s left arm.
The wood, however, was stuck against the hinges of the jaw, propping it open and foiling the rohwargle’s attempts.
Both Baldo and the wargle fell entangled to the ground.
The wargle’s teeth were lodged inside Baldo’s left arm, yet it could not pull it back.
Rage burned in the creature’s murky eyes, and it opened its jaws as far back as it could go.
With every fiber of its being did the rohwargle wish to tear him apart.
Baldo did not escape.
Rather, he did the opposite.
Into the creature’s mouth he leaped.
With the sword in his right hand, he stabbed deeply, deeply into the rohwargle’s throat.
He tried to jam the wood in his left hand further into the roof of the mouth at the same time.
The wargle managed to partially bite down.
As the piece of wood propped open the back of the mouth, however, it could not kill Baldo.
The upper half of Baldo’s body was now entirely engulfed in the rohwargle’s mouth.
He continued to stab with his sword repeatedly into the recesses of the throat, changing the angle every time.
His goal was to pierce the heart.
To this the wargle thrashed violently about and sent Baldo flying.
Baldo was no longer able to stand; he could but raise his head to look at the creature.
The rohwargle was now on its back, twitching and convulsing with a jolt.
Over time, its movements began to grow dull and sluggish, and then before long was it finally dead.
What an accomplishment, to slay a rohwargle alone and with but a sword.
It seems I haven’t lost my touch yet,
said Baldo to himself as he cursed his poor luck.
He could no longer move, let alone escape the oncoming flames.
His face, beard, and hands were all covered in the wargle’s blood and fluids.
He craned his neck to look at the old woman.
What awaited him was an incredible sight.
The blazing flames jumped from tree to tree, encircling the mass of bizarre plants.
And then all at once did the fire converge.
The devilish fruits burned; the fire burned.
The heat could melt one’s skin.
Yet Baldo did not pay attention to any of it—to his pain, to the heat, to the fire that raged as if with will and purpose.
A single woman stood before the blazing pyre.
She sang a song to which the fire danced.
Her hands were open, high above her head.
She was beautiful and full of youth.
Her once-silvery hair was now black and to her waist, and it billowed about in the fiery wind.
Her once-ragged clothes were now silky and translucent, and under the glow of the flames were the contours of her bewitching figure evident.
Baldo could only see the woman from behind.
Yet he somehow knew that her face would be youthful and possess a beauty that none would fathom could exist.
There was a holiness, strangely, enshrined in the fire and the woman who controlled it, and a wave of calm enveloped Baldo’s soul.
Under the scorching winds did Baldo whisper the name of his patron god, and then all was black.
When Baldo came to, he had been somehow carried to the marshes and his wounds were treated.
The flames burned for three days and three nights until all of the gheriadra were eradicated.
For a month after that, Baldo and the old woman moved as one.
The old woman taught Baldo many a thing about medicinal herbs and treatments involving them.
So too did she impart a great deal of knowledge onto him about edible plant-life and how to prepare it.
Baldo even grew a little frustrated with the old woman at how many sludge-like decoctions she fed him daily, to strengthen him against sickness and poison.
Baldo asked her if there were any remedies for his poor hip and shoulders, to which she merely responded that neither was illness.
In the first month, they arrived at a place inhabited by people.
It was not far from the Great Orva River.
The distance between Pacra and the Orva took ten days at the quickest to traverse on foot.
Though it was true he came with his belongings, two months to cross that distance proved it was quite the slow trip.
A fine journey this was.
Bounding with curious experiences, rich with new knowledge.
Baldo decided he would write a letter to Pacra once he arrived at Lints.
He turned to give the old woman his thanks, but no longer was she there.