The valley was warm and at peace, the morning they set forth from Crimond’s gates.
Fionna Cohmwell drank in the sight of the royal retinue, a splendid display of armored knights and decorated warhorses surrounding her. Her clan’s banner fluttered in the light breeze as it hung from the lance of the leading rider. It displayed a field of green, and a blue-gold flower blooming at its center. A Wolf’s Eye, the flower was named. It was the sigil of her clan, and her family both. Their company numbered twenty in all, almost all soldiers led by the Seneschal, Logaine MacTyre. Her father’s chief advisor, the sorcerer Balfour, had come as well. He rode atop an old, chestnut palfrey, dark, heavy robes belying the skeletal frame of the man beneath. As always, his staff was with him, leaning against his chest, half-hidden beneath his clothes. The staff’s head was decorated with a bear’s likeness, snarling and angry at the world, with a purple jewel held in its mouth. A shard of manna, from which he drew power. Beside Fionna rode her older brother, Euwin. The Prince was a handsome youth, on the verge of being a man, with the beginnings of stubble that hinted at a beard sometime not far off. He was strong-built, wide shouldered, and the idol of every girl in Crimond, and the envy of most boys.
“Are you nervous?” Euwin asked her as they rode side-by-side down the winding dirt road that led away from their home.
“A little,” Fionna revealed. She was only twelve, and this would be her first time entering the woods. Her first time gazing upon the Dwemmer. She turned to look back at her home in the distance, growing smaller with each moment as their party rode further and further away.
Crimond had been built hundreds years ago, a fortress-city that defended the mouth of the valley. The keep stood atop the crest of Gelncorrag hill, while below, at the hill’s base rest the town of Alnwick. A wall twenty feet deep and almost double that in height, wrapped around the outer perimeter of the town. The wall was dotted with multiple turrets, most of which were situated on the southern approach, where the wall protected the narrow mouth of the valley’s entranceway. No enemy had ever breached Crimond’s defenses, not even the Men’Kai – their most feared foes.
As she watched the castle, Fionna’s gaze drifted towards the windows of the keep, and she wondered if her mother was watching them as they rode away from her. The Lady of Crimond had not wished her only daughter to go, but her father was the Clan Lord, and he had insisted. Her mother’s reservations about her child’s leaving had only aided in worsening Fionna’s shattered nerves.
“You shouldn’t be,” Euwin told her. Her brother smiled his warm smile, and some little amount of her apprehension dissipated. “The Dwemmer is not something to be afraid of, whatever they say in Alnwick. Most of the people living there have never seen it – not with their own eyes. I have.”
Her brother had made this journey before, and then, he had been a year younger than she was now. Fionna wanted to believe him, but she’d heard the tales from Alnwick. Even if the Dwemmer was not dangerous, it was not the only that called the Blackwoods home. There were other things to fear. Predator-beasts as large as small cottage, capable of devouring a man whole. And dangerous or not, the thought of the Dwemmer still frightened her. It was not every day one looked upon the face of a living god.
“Here comes father,” Euwin said. “This is your chance, if you really want to go back.”
“Stop,” Fionna warned Euwin. “I’m not afraid.” But she was.
“That tremble in your voice betrays you,” Euwin said. “You know, it really is alright, if you’re afraid. You needn’t be worried about embarrassment. Mother wasn’t sure you were old enough to handle this yet, maybe she was right. No one will judge you if you want to turn around. There is always next time.”
Next time…Fionna thought, five years from now…
“No,” she said, adamant in her stubbornness, but when she looked towards her father, riding towards them, the first thing she wanted to ask was to go home – to go back behind the safety of Crimond’s walls. To be with her mother again.
Beric Cohmwell, the Clan Lord of Crimond and the protector of the Valley of Nin, came riding down the line of soldiers to join his two children. Her father was a powerful man, in both appearance and aura. Even though his age threatened forty, there was not a trace of grey anywhere in his hair. His red curls and thick beard were like fire, bright and vibrant, a match for his youthful spirit He wore a kilt, its tartan styled with the blue-yellow pattern of their clan, and a matching belted plaid. Beneath that, an undecorated vest, and a small pin of a Wolf’s Eye worn over his breast. Tethered to his back was his famed sword, a two-handed claymore that most could barely lift upright, let alone swing with the efficiency her father was said to be capable of. He’d once taken the head of a Men’Kai raider clean off his shoulders with a single swing. A story her brother liked to tell whenever he spoke of battles and glory, though he had never experienced it, himself.
“Why are you two lagging so far behind?” Lord Beric questioned them. “This is an important day. You should be riding at the head of column with your father.” He looked from Euwin to Fionna, waiting for an answer.
“Fionna is worried,” Euwin said, before she could have a chance to answer for herself. “About the Dwemmer.”
“I am not,” Fionna protested, but only out of embarrassment. Her brother was right – she was terrified. She’d promised herself to be brave, but here she was, frightened to the point where she couldn’t think right.
Lord Beric studied her, then sighed. “Go ride with the Seneschal,” he told Euwin. “I would speak with your sister, alone.”
“As you wish, father. Sister.” Euwin bowed his head to each of them in turn, and then galloped up the column to join Logaine.
“He isn’t trying to tease you,” Beric started. “He’s just-”
“A boy,” Fionna answered for him. “I know how they are.”
That made her father laugh. “You’ve always been wiser than your years would imply,” he said to her. “You get that from your mother. That was how she caught my eye, back when we were both young. She had much of your spirit and fire in her – she still does, though age and duty have blunted it some.” As he spoke, her father turned in his saddle. He was staring at Crimond, a wistful look behind his eyes. “Before we left, your mother argued against your pilgrimage. Was that the cause of this? You seemed eager enough before.”
Fionna nodded her head.
“You must try to understand, your mother is not of this land, not as we are. Her home is in Dalloway, far to the east. Amidst their mountains, her people are safe from all. They have never been forced to contend with the Men’Kai, or the evils of the Blight, or the creatures that haunt the Blackwoods. You, on the other hand…” Her father reached out to tussle her head with one hand. “You’ve lived in the valley all your life. You know the good, and the bad. You understand what it means to call Nin our home.”
Lord Beric looked ahead, and Fionna followed his gaze. The Blackwoods were drawing closer. She shuddered at the very sight of it. This was the closest she had ever come to the forest. All along the perimeter of the forest rose a wooden palisade, fifteen feet tall, with multiple towers standing behind the wall, and each guarded by a trio of archers. A single gateway served as the only access to the woods. The gate was only opened on the rarest of occasions – upon the times of pilgrimage, by the Clan Lord and his family. Today, was one such a time.
When Fionna finally looked away from the wall, she found her father was watching her again. “Tell me what you know of the Forest Spirit,” he instructed her.
It was said to be immortal, though no one knew if that was really true or not. What was known, was that the Dwemmer had existed for as long as there were records kept, the oldest of which dated back nearly four-hundred years to Crimond’s founding. There were many tales about it, but few if any were known to be true. Most were mere stories. It had once eaten a man whole, so one legend claimed, while another time, it was said to have dragged a cart and the family inside of it off into the darkness of the forest. Beyond those tales of horror, there were others that spoke of its connection to the Blackwoods, and the valley. There implied that the Forest Spirit was a servant of the Mother, and its purpose was to cultivate the earth for the Goddesses’ chosen people – her children of the forest. The Comiggial were those people. She told her father all of this, and he listened until she was finished.
Fionna didn’t know what to make of such contradictory stories. She knew those that implied the Dwemmer was a monster must be false – her father had made the journey into the Blackwoods many times, and so had others before him – and never had the Forest Spirit harmed them in any way. But if it was so benevolent, why did the stories of it being a monster persist at all? Why did so many fear it, if it truly was a servant of the Mother?
“Is there something I don’t know? Something you’re not telling me?” she asked Lord Beric.
Yes…he didn’t say it, but her father wore his answer upon his face for her to see. “You will see, but only if you go forward.”
They came to the gate, guarded by a small cluster of rangers. Words were exchanged, orders given, and soon enough the gate was opened. Three of the rangers were given horses, and three of Logaine’s warriors dismounted. The rangers would lead them into the forest, to the place of the Dwemmer. The hairs on Fionna’s arms rose at the sight of the forest. She stared into the void, the dark of the Blackwoods, and she thought she heard the sounds of creatures, calling out to her. She sank into her saddle, and realized she was trembling.
“Must I go?” Fionna asked her father, her reserve crumbled.
“We all must face our fears,” he answered. “Be brave,” he then said, and he reached out to squeeze her shoulder reassuringly.
“I know you are,” her father replied, “but you are the Princess of Nin, and you will not always be a child. One day I shall be gone. Your mother will be gone, and on that day you – and your brother – will rule. You must be brave. Now, for then.”
Seneschal Logaine was leading the first of his men through the gate. Beric clicked his tongue, and his horse started forward. “Come along, Fionna. It’s time you faced your fears. The Forest Spirit awaits us. Ride by my side. We shall cross into the woods together.”
Fionna remained rigid, gripping the reigns of her pony as tightly as she could, until her knuckles were white as bone. The woods beckoned, promising danger, and the uncertainty of the unknown. Gradually, the riders furthest ahead began to vanish into the foliage. Her father stopped just before the gate. He turned back to watch her, waiting. Though reluctant, she whispered words of encouragement to Brecca, and at last the pony started forwards. Side by side, she entered the Blackwoods with her father. The Dwemmer was waiting.