KILL OR CURE
Ghee’s staying with Thaw was the catalyst for Thaw to ruminate again on all he could remember of the lands of Life-in-Death; he reflected on their strengths and weaknesses, their overbearing and expansionist essence, and their lingering permanence. More than he really wished to. And he came slowly and reluctantly to an idea, long glimpsed, he felt was the only one which could work. A kill or cure. He did not believe in the inevitable destruction of the forest realm as did Ghee, but he did believe in the highly-likely destruction of his friend unless there was fundamental change therein.
The next time Thaw visited Ghee, with spring joyously budding all around, he slowly and subtly introduced his idea, till Ghee believed it to be his. And after a couple of days Ghee said:
“Because of the evil that dwells within the walls, loathsome and insidious, I will go to the Accursed City and fight it. I will go and destroy the massive that is the Marquis, who squats over the world and obscures the daystar.”
“But who would willingly walk into that darkness and explore the nature of that evil?” asked Thaw. “For that exploration is – in part at least – unavoidable if you wish to destroy it. And it could seduce you, or depress your spirit such as to render you as impotent as its other adherents.
“I know you have great strength, and that you will have the support of the Forest King, but the City of the Plain is never still and will surely beguile you before you can achieve your aim – unless you take great care. Already its tentacles are encroaching into your being.”
“Then what would you have me do: nothing?” retorted Ghee. “Would you have me sit here and wither under that looming shadow? I feared my idleness, and now you are trying to dissuade me from the one course of action that holds out any hope for us.
“I do not seek immortality, to impress my name in the writings and tale-tellings that remember so well. But this deed needs to be done. And, with the Forest King’s blessing, I will attempt to halt this destruction, though I fear that there will be no return to the glory of the nurturing wildwood. Not for me, at least.”
Thaw obviously accepted this, and went with Ghee to Bok Heliox Trhyon to seek an audience with the Forest King. Which was granted.
The friends presented themselves to the Forest King in his hall beneath the ruby spires of his Winter Palace, shortly before he was due to move to his Summer Palace.
They were led in by a gentle scribe, Ghee already too daunted to speak, and told to wait just inside the doors till they were invited forward. Inside was an oval space, with a parade of pillars carved as living trees running down the long axis. On either side the walls were low, appearing rude and rough-hewn when not obscured by tapestries, with a great sweeping roof blended with branches reaching to a narrow apex. Scented boughs were scattered on the stone floor, and various courtiers sat or stood to the sides. On a dais at the far end, of no great height, sat the Forest King – all in the colours of spring green and apple blossom – on an elaborately carved throne. Behind which hung his symbol of two heavy, entwining trees in full leaf.
A portly man stepped forward from his place beside the dais, dressed in purple and orange (not that comfortable on the eye) and bearing a tall staff which he tapped three times on the stone floor to attract attention and quiet; then he called in a loud voice, far more formally than Ghee had experienced on the couple of times he had visited as one-of-many before.
“Who comes to petition his majesty, King My-Phor, Forest King, Overlord of the Water Master? Come forward: speak: persuade.”
If Ghee had felt tongue-tied before, he was rooted to the spot as well now. But Thaw had been before more than one Forest King, in many audiences, and knew his friend: he was prepared. He firmly steered Ghee forward, and formally introduced them both.
“Welcome Hi-Thaw,” replied the Forest King; “it is much longer than I would have liked since you came to see us last. And now so formally.”
Ghee was surprised by the warm and informal tone of the Forest King; and even more so when Thaw leant forward to break the air of stiffness that had overspread the preceding proceedings.
“I did as I was instructed to do. And I didn’t want to presume on our previous friendship. For it is a difficult thing I ask.” Then he outlined the doubts and fears that had been assailing Ghee, and how they hoped to resolve them. In all this there was an unspoken assumption that Thaw would accompany Ghee, though they had not talked about this. He ended by saying: “You know my history, and the outcome thereof; but sometimes extreme costs are worth bearing.”
“It is indeed a lot you ask. And I don’t wish to lose any subject, much less a friend.”
“That is far from certain.”
“I know: but there is a good chance, even if you defeat the Marquis. Yet I am not inclined to hinder anyone in their chosen course of action without good reason. And fear of losing a friend – who knows what he is doing – is not a good enough reason.
“Furthermore, I will bless and aid your venture, though now I have more doubt about what may lurk beyond our borders than before you spoke.”
“Thank you,” said Thaw. Ghee was still too overawed to speak.
Although there was not much that the Forest King could do to help Ghee and Thaw in their journey beyond his realm, he did what he could. He indeed gave his blessing to Ghee and his venture, formally in the Sacred Grove where he performed for his people, and bestowed as aids: a memory of the breezes of the Lord of the Winds that would sometimes sweep down from the upper airs to stir the swathes of trees, blowing away shards of gloom when they threatened to envelope; the knowledge of the interlinking watchfulness of some, so Ghee would not forget the Water Master’s protective vats of perceptive liquid; the flash fires that occasionally destroy to promote regeneration, given to the reluctant warrior as a reminder of what truth is actually true; and the remembrance that there is a fruitful use for everything if it can be allowed its own pace to adapt to its part in the whole.
And he commanded Thaw to go as Ghee’s guide, him being the only member of the forest people who had ever returned from a city across the Rainbow Divide.
In this Thaw was pleased, for though he remembered clearly the after-effects of his last visit, this was over-written by the fact that he had recovered. He knew any suggestion of his about his coming along would have wounded his friend’s pride, and Ghee was too wrapped up in his quest to think to ask, but Ghee would not disobey a royal command.
And Ghee was indeed pleased – when he got around to thinking about it.
The friends did what else they could to prepare. They armed themselves with what was available; though the forest race was not warlike they found knives, bows, arrows and quivers, tall spears, and they improvised shields. The Forest King blessed them all.
Before Ghee and Thaw departed they said an individual farewell to their friends (mostly Thaw’s), some of whom tried to persuade them it was unnecessary for them to undertake this mission. But all were too knowledgeable to suggest it was unimportant, at least to the two friends.
Then, as arrayed and prepared as they were ever likely to be, the questers had a final audience before the Forest King. This was held on a sward before the Forest Hall, whereon was placed, beneath a canopy, a dais and throne for King My-Phor.
Few of the forest people came to see them off. There were not in any case many about, the frith people living widely scattered throughout the heart of the Greater Forest, with only a small concentration about Bok Heliox Trhyon and the islands and shores of its deep lake. And it is questionable if many kenned the nature of the quest, for though the telling of Hi-Thaw’s exploits all those thousands of years ago away across the Rainbow Chasm on ancient Earth was quite widely known, most considered it to have scant relevance for their lands or future.
Ghee and Thaw bowed their heads and bent their knees before their King as he spoke to the small crowd:
“Please think on Ni-Ghee and Hi-Thaw, on their bravery and steadfastness as they venture into the desolation that stands as the antipathy to all we have here. Think on them while you go about your everyday tasks as much as when you are in your Scared Groves, think of them struggling in the barrenness that is far away – yet threatens to devour – and hope beyond hope for their success. For what is there touches us here.
“They go to meet the creature of whom many stories are told, from whom many nightmares have sprung, the rumour of whom bestrides even this world, who has sought to impose a will of uniformity against the mandate of the Rainbow Serpent. We must believe they will conquer the monster in its lifeless home and show that it cannot threaten us without retribution. It is not beyond our reach, though – by its own judgements – we have little power: little worth.” Then he lowered his attention to the friends before him. “Ni-Ghee, do you still hold fast to this task that you have taken on yourself?”
“I do,” replied Ghee, rising to his feet. “I am committed to this venture, and will succeed or die in the attempt. I will go to the City and slay the Marquis, that fiend that stands on the threshold and obscures the light. I will destroy utterly this nihilistic monster, and save even this world from its shade, for all it seems far away across the Transcending Sea, the Rainbow Chasm.
“And with me shall go my firm friend and trusted guide.” Thaw stood in his turned. “He will aid me by his strength and knowledge.”
Then the Forest King’s chief counsellor came forward, in the same purple and orange he had worn when inviting them to make their original petition. He bowed to his monarch, then addressed the venturers and onlookers.
“We all wish you well on this quest – but beware. We have heard that the Marquis is not like those men who die. It has weapons that none can withstand, hidden and subtle, that attack the spirit more than the corporeal form. None can stand against them!”
“You are preaching with the Marquis’s words, and they always lead to despair,” said Thaw. “If we only listen to them then our failure is a predetermined certainty.”
“Its City of the Plain stretches for acre upon acre in all directions,” continued the chief counsellor, ignoring the impolite interruption. “Who would willingly go to explore such depths? Do you crave oblivion Ni-Ghee, for you will likely find it if you go up against the maw of the Marquis? This can never be an equal fight! And if you win? Who will be the new ruler? Any different? A green-eyed pedagogue with his young blue-eyed cohort. Just the same. The Marquis is Dead: Long Live the Marshall.”
“I know that, Si-Kell,” said Ghee: “but maybe the Marshall will have different boundaries and perspectives to his universe; or maybe he won’t have any more understanding, do any less harm, than the current regime. But I must try, nonetheless. It wouldn’t help if I said I wasn’t afraid of the Marquis; it wouldn’t help if I sat at home and waited for it or its minions to cross over, or for those of like cast on Kolchin to come and destroy this retreat and all I love.”
“I do not doubt your heart,” replied Si-Kell, “but do not trust too much to your own skills – be ever watchful.
“Let Hi-Thaw lead the way, protecting you. He knows of the devious paths, he has seen the shadow of the Marquis, he has before entered and explored a city’s ways, and he alone of us has even fought against another sentient being beyond our borders. His help will be invaluable.”
Then the counsellor turned and addressed the guide: “It maybe you think I am unnecessarily pessimistic, seeking to undermine you: that is not my intent. I simply give a last warning, lest you are too cavalier.”
“That will not happen: we know clearly the danger and immensity of what we are attempting. We do not need to be told again.”
“Maybe: I mean no harm.”
“It will not linger.” Then Ghee turned to his friend. “I will guide you truly, never knowingly leading you astray. But though I know the pit wherein the Marquis dwells, it is a treacherous road to its gaping maw. So while I lead you, let all here pray.”
“Come Ni-Ghee, let us seek the way. Farewell all.”
“Farewell,” said the Forest King, “may the prayers of all in the forest protect you.”
Then the two friends turned and left the grassy concourse, setting their initial course southwards towards the lowlands of the Greater Forest.
Most believed they would not see them again.