The Hero's Apprentice

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Ch. 22 Dreys’ Protector

Walter looked around and saw that Cro was gone but that the forest looked pretty much the same. Except then Walter remembered the coins in the dirt and found that the mound was gone. That didn’t stop Walter. He eventually did locate and find the rusty coins with the help of the forest that remembered where he had hidden it half a century ago. Walter was bored so he tried transmuting the coins into something. First he tried a knife, but there wasn’t enough metal to make one he could hold. Then Walter tried a figuring of Drey. It took a few tries, but Walter succeeded and the spell even purified the metal to make it a shiny, silver figuring of Drey.

Walter entered town in the night, and stopped at his favorite inn to sleep in a normal bed for the first time in a while. The inn looked much different though. The innkeeper thought he was Rye for a moment, but then realized his mistake. Walter decided to remove his tunic since he didn’t want Rye around even if he hadn’t met him yet. The innkeeper wanted coins which Walter did have this time from all his work in the library. He ate and spent most of the time trying to find out about Ando and what had happened of late. The innkeeper was hesitant at first, so Walter made it worth his while by offering the silver figuring he had made of the princess as a bribe. The innkeeper greedily took it. It seemed greed ran in the innkeepers’ family because Walter remembered having had to sell his boots from Drey to a guy similar to him many years ago. Perhaps it was coincidence but the innkeeper opened up about how princess Drey who was the splitting likeness of his statue had been betrothed to a prince in a neighboring realm. Walter asked the name and location of this kingdom and the inn keeper managed to blurt it out before asking why. The kingdom of Gant he had said that lay to the northeast past Mutton Hollow and over treacherous mountains before the forest began on the other side. Walter asked how far away that was and was not impressed when he said a week by carriage. Walter tossed the inn keeper a gold coin and said good night. Walter would need his rest, whether he was going to ride to Gant, or go on foot before Drey got hitched to this prince he was dying to meet and tell him to get his hands off his future wife.

In the end Walter couldn’t sleep and decided he might as well get on with it and get to Gant as quickly as possible. It pained Walter to part with all his hard earned gold, but he found a lot of gossip givers who told him the wedding was in five days. Walter wouldn’t make it in time so he needed speed and he needed it now. Walter had five carriage rides over the course of three days because he wanted a fresh team of horses for his journey. In the end Walter used up all his gold on those rides. Sleeping and skipping meals as much as possible to get to Gant as fast as he could. Traveling by magic was impossible cause Walter had never been there and couldn’t visualize the place. When he arrived with two days to spare he was tired, hungry, and would’ve been thirsty had his gourd not been refilled recently by a river outside of Gant.

The kingdom of Gant was an amazing site for Walter because it was more industrious than Ando. While Ando had farms, Gant had mines, merchants, and shipping docks. Wealth was everywhere and Walter found that an avid street performer could easily get his lunch money if he did enough tricks. Walter abased himself to this and managed to wow a few spectators until one of them turned out to be a competitor for the crowds gold. The wizard was a local favorite named Zik who challenged Walter to a duel. The wager was winner got all the crowds gold excluding those who were betting, and the other had to stop street performing for two days. Walter accepted and asked that it be a five minute duel. Zik agreed and a small boy was chosen to announce the start of the match.

The crowd backed away but grew in size as all the market got ready for what was going to be the next duel until whenever. Sometimes another duel happened soon after, other times it was a whole week or more. The boy shouted go and Zik tried a spell unfamiliar to Walter. He realized he didn’t have a staff and for some reason instinctively took out the flute Drey had given him. Zik laughed at the idea of wooing him with music but was surprised when Walter used the flute as a wand and absorbed the spell, read it while it was in his wooden instrument, and unleashed it back on him with a slight modification, It had originally been a shrinking spell that would make Walter temporarily small. But Walter had learned this with enough time to make it only shrink Ziks’ clothes. The crowd laughed loud for the whole kingdom to hear as Zik was choking trying to get his now too tight clothes off. Walter asked Zik to surrender by raising his hand and dropping his staff. Zik complied and the match was over. Walter was about to reverse the hex when he was showered with gold. Apparently no one in the crowd was stingy today so Walter filled his bag to capacity, restored Ziks’ outfit, then continued to pick up what was left.

No one else challenged Walter that day, but the cheers went on for quite some time. Walter had never gotten so much attention before, and then caught eye of what he had been searching for this whole time. Drey was a good five hundred feet away in the Gant castle tower watching, but Walter knew it was her, he was certain she had come out to see what the uproar was. Walter then eyed someone else on the tower. Some guy in purple who was putting his cold arm around Drey. Walter didn’t have time to celebrate, he was on a mission and unless Rye showed up right now, this was the only thing left to do before Walter got back to his first full day as a married man.

Walter wanted to go that instant, but he couldn’t just barge in, and he’d certainly have guards and maybe wizards to deal with. For the present Walter found a place to rest and eat from his fast paced journey. It was a miracle Walter had won a duel so easily. He was actually spent from all that riding. Walter took an afternoon nap, then took a trip to the market to find a replacement staff if possible. It turned out to be harder than he thought. The staffs just didn’t seem right each time Walter held it. Walter was about to give up on the errand when the owner ushered him back in to a room behind a pair of curtains.

Walter was shocked. He’d never been to a weapons store before, and here he was inside eyeing an armory of every weapon he could possibly imagine that had been invented before the flintlock pistol. And even more so, these weapons were beaming with life. Etched with runes, and teaming with the love and craftsmanship of the smith who had made them.

“I can see you know what’s real and what’s just for show.”

“Any suggestions?”

The owner grabbed Walters’ arm and looked him up.

“You’ve trained, but not with weapons it would seem.”

“First time for everything.” Walter knew the owner was just being sincere.

“If it’s just a staff you desire, I recommend oak wood, but remember, wood will always lose to metal in close combat. If you are to own a weapon, you must be willing to fight both magic, and brute strength. Magic runs out eventually, brute strength is hard to get rid of thank goodness.”

“Perhaps a weapon made for speed then.”

“You’re not so stupid, even for a wizard. Wizards think that just because they have magic at their disposal that brute strength can’t touch them. But a wizard without magic is the first to fall in battle, especially since they don’t wear much armor.”

“You hint that I should buy a weapon and armor.”

“Again you are too smart for one so young.”

Walter could’ve told the owner his actual age but he either would’ve laughed at the so called jest or would be terrified that there was a wizard who had a lengthened lifespan. Walter tried to ask fewer questions since he realized that the owner was trying to help and make a profit. Walter could use some armor at least, something simple, and he certainly either needed a staff for magic, or he would settle for the flute. Walter eyed the axes, swords, clubs, bows, and other weapons carefully. This was like being married to Drey. Whatever weapon he choose excluded all the others. It was a difficult choice unlike Drey. But Walter knew that the owner was trying to clue him in the present. Magic had gotten him this far, and a lot of chance too. If he was gonna cut a path to whatever his next goal was he was gonna need strength of will and strength of arm.

Walter quickly picked out some leather armor with a metal plate that covered the heart. It wasn’t pricy but it also wasn’t cheap. Next Walter eyed a short sword. Not the strongest or heaviest weapon, but it would protect well against small threats and the magic could deal with the large ones. It’s not like Walter could afford or would want to be hauling a catapault or driving a tank anyway. Finally Walter ended up getting an oak staff. He had just enough money to buy the three items. The owner seemed satisfied with the choices and told Walter he’d throw in a pair of shoes but Walter declined. The owner would’ve insisted but Walter made it clear that being in tune with nature was that important to him, and he would be in less danger if he detected it and avoided it altogether. The storeowner seemed to agree and simply warned Walter not to expect understanding from everyone who didn’t share his passion for being bare foot. Walter said he’d be back if he ever got any more money. The owner said he’d look forward to seeing the items proven in whatever battle they happened to be employed in. With his new staff, and additional items Walter said farewell and let himself out of the store.

The market was calmer now and Walters get up did draw some attention since he was still wearing odd pants and no shoes. Luckily his armor and sword were hidden under his green tunic and Walter had to get used to the extra weight. It wasn’t bad, his body could use some training anyway since he was about to go to the town castle and see Drey and hopefully take her away before Barney the dinosaurs’ biggest fan gave him trouble.

As always, Walter always tried the peaceful approach into the castle first. When the guards denied him and asked his name he simply said he was here to see princess Drey and that he was her subject. The guards asked for his name again and Walter decided he’d have no choice.

“Cro.”

“The guards stirred at the mention of the castle wizard of Ando.”

“You are too young to be the great Cro.”

“I mean I am his student. And am on orders to protect princess Drey tonight.”

“The princess will be safe in the castle we assure you. Anyone caught trying to enter will be caught, tried, and hanged before the sun sets twice.”

Walter saw that he was going to have to cause trouble if he even wanted a chance to see Drey before she slept. So Walter left but gave the knights a message to deliver to Drey and the prince.

“Tell my princess and your prince that Ando will not be there when she gets back if she marries within the next three years.”

That worked. One of the guards speedily went to spread the message they had just received from the green wizard. Walter excused himself and said should they request his presence at the castle he would wait one day and then he would leave the town. He told them to leave any messages for him at the nearby armory he had just come from and bid them a good evening.

Walter spent the rest of the evening deciding whether or not he should storm the castle and find Drey. He was nervous and scared because he realized that this was technically not Drey, it could be Drey in time. If he didn’t do his best then she’d never be convinced and she’d marry this other guy. Walter didn’t care even if he was good or bad. He just knew he wanted Drey and had no clue whatsoever how he was going to do it. Drey had been vague, and there were no details, names, or people in the story that were part of the tale she had told him in what seemed an eternity ago. It had been over a month since he last saw Drey and almost a week since he saw Cro in his youth. Walter wondered if maybe he needed to go back earlier to meet Drey. Maybe this was too late. Walter meditated, but then went outside cause the room was too silent. Out on a hill just outside Gant, Walter listened to the mountains, sea, and land.

Walter asked the elements what he had to do to win love. The land seemed to understand his desire and simply said there was always a way even if it wasn’t the one intended. The mountain concurred saying that sometimes being a valley was better than being a mountain, even though fewer people admired the valleys the way mountains inspired people. The sea caught ear of Walters plight and said that storms and calm seas were still just moving water in the wind. That the speed wasn’t important, just moving in the right direction was important. Rain would eventually come, as would the seasons and the sunrise. It was holding still and doing nothing that was the unforgivable sin that nature never yielded to no matter how fast or slow it did something.

Walter remembered all the years he had waited for someone like Drey. And how he had promised her so much in so little time. Walter knew why he was here. He wanted the easy way, which was to force things. But that was wrong. Forcing only hurt the enforcer and the subject being forced in the end. But not trying was just as bad. You couldn’t have something unless you were truly willing to do all you could to have it. Walter didn’t doubt for an instant that he wanted Drey, even just a chance to be rejected. No chance was always worse than failure. Failure at least had the courtesy to teach you what you could do the next time. And even if that next time wouldn’t be for Walter, at least someone would get a chance, and succeed where he or so many others had seemed to have failed.

Walter decided it wouldn’t hurt to at least see Drey even if he didn’t speak to her. He’d watch over her, make sure she was safe and happy. He eyed his precious bracelet. He would always protect her, and she would love him. Didn’t matter anymore to Walter. He loved Drey already and he’d never betray those feelings he wanted to have for and give her. Walter was done thinking about losing Drey. It wasn’t going to happen. Not without Rye or some other creep getting in Walters’ way. If he died, at least then he’d have no regrets about not trying.

Walters’ message had struck quite a chord in the court of the king of Gant. King Yur and Queen Lain assured him it was just some mad beggar or something trying to cause an uproar. Drey was curious as to why she had to wait three years to marry. And prince Herum assured her that the wedding would commence no matter who objected. Drey didn’t really like how he thought he could decide such things. Drey didn’t want Ando burned down so she said she would speak with the wizard and discuss reason as to why such a thing would be used as a threat against her. The king of Gant began arguing with Yur about whether he would invade Gant if Ando did burn to the ground. To which Yur replied absolutely not. King Fry was satisfied. And assured Yur if Ando was attacked he’d come to their aid hastily. Drey excused herself saying she didn’t feel well and wouldn’t be seeing anybody until morning.

In her chamber Drey wept as Walter had never seen her do except when she had embraced him in her room back in Ando. She wasn’t ready for this, Walter at least felt that much was true. She hugged her pillow the way she had done with Walter and Walter soon saw that she was very much alone. She wanted to be heard. Wanted to be important. Walter knew all these feelings and he couldn’t stand to see Drey so sad. He broke the silence and silently prayed that she would not scream or call the guards, otherwise he’d have to find a truly impossible way to be with her ever again.

“Did you get my message Drey?”

Drey wiped her tears and looked at Walter in the moonlight on the balcony. Walter couldn’t miss the tower she had been on. He just hoped it wasn’t the princes’ room, otherwise he probably would’ve hexed it.

“You are Cros’ student sent to protect me?”

“Yes Drey, I will protect you till I die.”

“From what?”

“From whatever pains you, and from anything that you feel is wrong, even if it means I have to go far away to keep you safe.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Because you saved my life once.”

“I did?”

“Yes, and I don’t care what happens to me, I wont see you sad if I can do anything about it.”

“You talk as if you know me.”

“Maybe I do? Or maybe I want to the way you want to know you are not alone and that you are someones’ entire world waiting to express itself to them?”

“Are you reading my mind?”

“Let’s just say you told me a lot the day you saved me.”

“When was that?”

“Three years from now.”

“What?”

“In three years you’ll meet me, I wont remember any of this and you’ll help me find my way here.”

“Impossible.”

“No Drey, you make anything possible for me to do.”

“Are you saying it’s possible to love a complete stranger?”

“I’m saying that two people can choose to be strangers, or choose to be the same so that they never ever get separated by centuries, death, or by being on different stars.”

“Are you an angel?”

“Impossible, I’m not as beautiful as you.”

“I want to believe you.”

“Will you Drey?”

“I don’t know.”

“I wont make you do what doesn’t make you happy. I will protect you if that is your wish. If you wish me gone, I will go, and take it as an expression of your love.”

“How would that be love?”

“Love enough to never leave you, love enough to let you go if that is your desire.”

Dreys’ heart was beating so rapidly she thought she would lose it because it would leap out of her. She approached Walter who got down from the balcony and knelt in front of her. She asked him to rise and asked him to prove he meant everything he said. Walter produced his class ring he had watched over with care all that time and placed it in Dreys’ soft hands.

“If you need me, just touch it and think of me and I will hear it. I will come get you and keep you safe. I wont ever be far from you I promise. And one other thing.”

Walter kissed Drey and she couldn’t stop herself from kissing him back. It was like he had kissed her before and knew how and why she wanted to be kissed. Drey didn’t want the moment to end. Walter carried her back to her bed and assured her he’d not let anything harm her. Drey fell asleep and Walter got up wanting to touch her. But he didn’t want to wake her. He just wanted her to sleep without crying, and she did. Walter looked at the stars from atop the roof of the castle. He had done all he could. He just hoped Drey decided soon or he wasn’t quite sure what he was gonna do with the rest of his life. Walter had put enough of his power into the ring that it would be easy to find even at great distances. Walter almost tried to make it show him what Drey saw. But feeling was enough. Maybe later he’d make a second ring that would enable them to talk to each other? It would take research though, or a trip back home for batteries and a pair of walkie talkies. But those had a five mile limit. And making cell phone payments was pointless except if you were in the right time period and in an area with a signal. Walters’ ring would be fine. Walter sensed he needed to leave because the guards had noticed his form in the moonlight. Getting down would be a little trickier than it had been getting up.

When Drey woke she thought she had dreamed. She eyed the balcony and couldn’t really decide what had happened last night. Had she cried herself to sleep? Or had she really been visited by one of Cros’ students who had sworn his undying loyalty to her whatever it spelled out for him? Either way, Drey felt fine that morning, she got up and undressed. Walter wasn’t nearby because last night he had found that the castle was guarded very well. And had managed to dodge an arrow before escaping. But the guards informed King Fry there had been an intruder who was either in town or still hiding somewhere in the castle. Fry told the guards to kill on sight. Anybody who dared enter his castle without an invitation would find out just how much they’d regret it afterwards. It was the strictness of Gant that made it the perfect place for people to get away from bandits and hooligans. And then there were the mountains and forests that were infested with shadows and creatures that made the soldiers even more zealous to keep the town safe. Not that Gant didn’t have some wizards, but they certainly didn’t have the magical abilities like the ones back in Ando that were so reliable, it bothered Fry.

That was why he wanted Drey to marry Herum. United he’d have a massive army that would be even more powerful once the wizards of Ando became a part of it. Fry was an ambitious king. And hoped his army would sweep out the forest and mountains and eliminate all monsters within it. Then the two kingdoms could unite more properly and the realm would grow without restraint. Problem was his soldiers just came back complaining about the creatures and weird curses that were in the forest. Fry didn’t believe the stories but soon found out they were more than just figments of the imagination. Always the soldiers felt that something was in the forest, or it was the forest. It would not be infiltrated unless they burned it with fire with arrows from a distance. Fry was going to begin having his men try once the wedding was complete.

Walter visited the armory after a few performances so he could actually eat. He didn’t get as much as yesterday since the crowd was expecting something more spectacular than the classics. Walter didn’t care, he just wanted food and to find out if there were any messages for him at the armory. Ber the storeowner welcomed Walter and told him that he was being pursued by the guards and king. Walter asked why, and Ber just pointed out that the king didn’t always need a reason. Walter needed to hide, or he needed to leave. Walter said he’d go in the forest, but Ber tried to talk him out of it. Walter insisted there was no danger and that he was friends with the forest. Ber agreed that might be true, but also said that forests were large and some areas were friendlier than others. Walter got interested in how Ber knew that.

“You’ve been to the west portion of the forest?”

“Indeed, one of the reasons I made my way here. I was once from Ando, went in search of adventure and legends and found out really fast that some quests cannot be completed by oneself. When I escaped the forest I wound up here. I used my mage skills to earn enough to start a shop where I vowed to protect Gant or rather prepare it against any threats from that forest.”

“You studied at the academy?”

“Many years ago. You know Cro I presume. There were rumors that one of his students was here. I imagine you are him.”

“Correct.”

“Well he taught you well, and I’ll tell you this. If you stay in Ando you are relatively safe. The forest wont dare challenge the giants, and the giants are still being tricked into eating mutton forever I assume.”

“Cro told me that is the case.”

“However, deeper into the forest are the larger and more sinister creatures that used to plague Ando and now Gant. No one knows where they came from and what dark place they sprung, but for sure we didn’t kill them all back in the day. We made villages safer, but many creatures evaded us and even our most skilled mages and then warriors couldn’t kill the large ones.”

“What about an army of soldiers and wizards?”

“That might work, but I imagine you wouldn’t participate since I can tell you are well liked by the forest. It might let you in, but I doubt the forest and the dark creatures are friends. The forest tries of course to get rid of the creatures, they come here, we push them back to the forest, and it’s an eternal cycle of pushing the problems elsewhere.”

“What if I try?”

“What’s going through your head?”

“If I go into the forest and slay this evil, then perhaps the forest and town will both prosper more?”

“No wizard could, I myself barely escaped that forest, and there was a shadow there.”

“A shadow?”

“A beast that only comes out at night, and that only if there’s no moon. I only know it is big, and many die right before their torches begin to make out its form. I and a few soldiers are the only ones who have seen it, and we have never gone back to fight it. I wouldn’t know how.”

“In the daytime for starters.”

“Surely you jest?”

“Timing is all that is needed. Strike and then retreat. Eventually it’ll get weaker.”

“If you go into the forest to escape the danger here, it was a pleasure knowing you.”

“I wont die, and when I get back to Ando, I’ll tell them your weapons aided me and they’ll come here to find you and buy your weapons.”

“You’re going then?”

“Tonight, today I think I’ll hide around the castle. Where are the guards weakest?”

“You want the fishing district. Soldiers only go there when large ships are on the horizon. There weren’t any yesterday so you should be able to hang out there until nightfall makes you harder to see.”

“Wish you’d teach me your weapon enchantments.”

“For the little gold you have left, I’ll enchant your equipment.”

“Thanks.”

Ber only needed a while, and he did an amazing job. All of Walters’ equipment felt lighter, stronger, and had spells that mimicked Cros’ that was weakening on Walters’ clothes. Ber reinforced them and then went to the sword. He imbued it to freeze water, gleam so bright it blinded an opponent, and stay near Walter should it get knocked from his hand. Walter asked Ber to tell him the spells to add to his spell book. Ber was flattered and managed to find his own spell book he had used years ago, but only glanced at when he made weapons. Walter flipped through it and added some spells he thought would help Ber and his business. Ber thanked him by enchanting his flute and staff with some of his magic. Walter was as ready as possible, and thanked Ber for all his help. He promised to come back some day when his quest was over. Ber wanted to know what it was beyond slaying the monster of the bog, but Walter said he’d know by tomorrow. Ber spent the rest of the day brushing up his mage skills. It seemed Walter had put the spark back into the old peer of Cro.

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