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It was some time before we learned of the spread of Shadow. That knowledge arrived in the form of Graemor, a crippled warrior lacking both a left arm and a left eye; from beneath the patch that covered the eye socket, a white thread of scar ran through the ebony of his face. His appearance certainly sent a chill through all who saw him—and that was everyone, given the rarity of travelers—but the news he bore created less interest, for we had scant evidence his claims were true and less desire to seek out such evidence. After all, an extraordinary wolf or even an ordinary man with a sword could have caused the damage that so horribly disfigured the man, and secure in our oasis of Light, few felt any need to question the matter further. Most wrote him off as a crazed veteran of some distant war, inventing wild tales to make his injuries seem the more heroic and to spare him the necessity of earning his keep. His skills at arms and woodcraft lent credence to the most popular suspicions of his origins, but his burning desire to teach those skills to anyone able to spare the time, in exchange for nothing more than food and a place to sleep, earned him a place to stay and enough food and drink to survive. Few accepted his offer of training, and none for long save those of us young enough and restless enough to chafe at the peaceful nature of our lives.
His origins and his dark warnings were, of course, a matter of consuming interest to those of us young enough to care about such things, and became fodder for endless speculation whenever we could escape our chores and the constraints of adult supervision. When it became clear that only we few were interested in learning more, Graemor focused his persuasions on us.
I sought that escape eagerly, along with a few like-minded friends. Each of us had grown old enough to have earned some independence, but not yet so old that adult responsibilities had entered and consumed our lives. Before coming to Haven, I'd sought my freedom in the many books and few ancient scrolls in the Temple library, relishing that form of escape from childhood’s bondage, the more so when those yellowed pages held tales of heroes and adventure. But that ended when the Council sent me away, along with most boys and a few girls of my age, to be fostered in a distant village, as was our people's custom. After the stench and crowding of a large city, Haven had many compensations, not the least being the clean air and endless fields and the impenetrable woodland surrounding them. But Haven’s Temple was too small to have much of a library, and that was a grievous lack. I missed my parents and some friends I'd left behind, but our people had many lifetimes of experience in the practice of fostering, and it was a pain that soon eased. Not so the books, which I mourned ever more keenly when I'd finished reading all the books available to me.
So I eagerly sought out Graemor's martial training. In the absence of any village that might possibly wish to war upon such a small community, and with no bandits or other scofflaws in recent memory, the profession of arms seemed a particularly attractive sport, for there was little risk of ever having to use my newly acquired skill with weapons. Better still was the woodcraft he taught us. As one of Graemor’s Rangers, I could easily bring in enough game to feed him, myself, and possibly even a future family. With the way that Mareth had begun to look upon me as my muscles expanded under the burden of martial training and as my wit grew somewhat nearer to its natural bounds from my time spent in the woods, this was a very good thing indeed. Both arms and ranging were legitimate professions that, once mastered, would spare me from the only other profession I could reasonably hope to perform with the skills the Light had provided. These included neither the fine dexterity and hunched back of a future craftsman nor the quiet subservience of a laborer. For a village the size of Haven, that left only farming. By no means do I scorn those who labor to keep us fed, but neither was it in my personality to accept such difficult work and so many constraints. Ranging the woods about the village satisfied my needs admirably.
When he perceived that we believed his wilder tales no more than the rest of the village, Graemor prudently left off his warnings and concentrated on tales more relevant to our needs. But he also periodically vanished for several days without warning, and one day a few of us took it upon ourselves to discover why. It was both terrifying and exhilarating to travel so far from our village on our own—for Graemor had endurance that put many a younger man to shame, and we knew from previous explorations that he went far beyond a day's travel from our homes. Indeed, given the length of his typical absence, we suspected we might have a long hike ahead of us. As a man who had no reason to fear being tracked, he was easy to follow, and after a time it became clear where he was heading. The abandoned road that led west of our village, and that remained distinct despite the absence of any traffic since I'd come to Haven several years back, passed over a low range of hills and—and vanished into a wall of night, though it was still full day when we first spotted that darkness. That darkness looked far too much like the Shadow spoken of in some of the older books I'd read.
Nonetheless, Graemor’s trail led unfalteringly in that direction, and seemed certain to vanish into that darkness. The whole situation was sufficiently strange that we halted and debated some time before proceeding. I, for one, began to have an uncomfortable certainty that even Graemor’s most unsettling tales had some truth to them, and I argued that point with a growing queasiness in my belly that I’d never experienced before. Perhaps there was a reason travelers between villages carried with them an ark of the Light? On the other hand, several of us argued there might be nothing whatsoever amiss with this darkness; who, after all, could claim to know enough of the world beyond our farms to say what was and was not natural? Perhaps all the world was this way! That possibility was every bit as terrifying as Graemor’s tales, and I was reluctant to fully accept what that evidence meant. I wished I remembered more of what I'd read, but even so, it might not have helped; the older books were far too metaphorical and obscure to provide any certainty.
Those who argued we were well-armed and—though we later found out how foolish this notion had been—well prepared for anything the world might throw at us won the day. So we proceeded. By sunset, we had reached that wall of darkness, though we agreed without debate to camp a long stone’s throw away from it, just in case. Suddenly, this simple lark, the tracking of our absent master, had become something altogether more exciting. But had we not been surrounded by friends and the implied threat of mockery for any who fled, we doubtless would have returned home, even at the risk of marching by night. Instead, we took turns on guard as Graemor had taught us, as if this were warfare and we had no desire to be surprised by some hypothetical enemy. And though we had learned to sleep at our ease in woods that were home to boar, bear, and wolves, and despite the presence of a guard who was scared into vigilance, none of us slept well that night. In the morning, when we made our first tentative efforts to enter the strange new land, we discovered we'd been right to proceed with caution.
As the oldest Ranger, they chose me to enter the dark lands first, despite my protests; the others would follow if nothing untoward happened, or would rescue me if something did—and should rescue prove impossible, would race home bearing news of my fate. Had it not been for the false bravado inspired by their good-natured mockery, I might still have refused, but in the face of those gibes I had little choice.
Entering Shadow for the first time reminded me of the river that ran past my village and that became the site of many a test of one’s budding manhood. There was the time that, on a dare, I’d jumped into the river the first day after the ice had broken up and begun its annual migration downstream. I remember the tension in my groin as my balls retracted painfully tight, and I remember the panic of how sluggish my muscles felt and how near I’d come to joining with the Light before someone pulled me from the river, my limbs shaking and the cold of the grave upon me. Another, warmer, time, I’d essayed to touch the bottom to impress Mareth, even though it lay deep below a swift current. I succeeded, narrowly, but to this day, clearly remember being crushed by the weight of all that water. I’ve also never forgotten the inexorable feeling of expansion as I hurtled to the surface, lungs bursting with the need to breathe, straining to hold in the last of my air, and how that weight came off me in a rush, my ears popping, as I broke the surface.
But despite this preparation, Shadow came as a shock. There was the expected chill, for it was a warm day and I was stepping into what appeared to be deep shade, but more than that, there was a profound mental difference. As when I'd fled the river bottom, seeking a different light, I felt an irresistible feeling of expansion. It was as if I were being pulled outward in all directions at once, while simultaneously blurring, mentally and physically, in some terrible way I could not then find words to describe. Had I not staggered backwards from the sheer terror of that experience, and fallen full length on the ground, I hesitate to think what might have happened to me. As it was, two friends were fleeing as fast as they could run back towards Haven by the time my eyes refocused, and the others, the whites of their eyes showing, were not far from joining them; they refused to say what they'd seen, and would not meet my eyes. Things might have gone ill for me had not Graemor chosen that moment to reappear.
The scarred veteran appeared as if from nowhere, stepping forth from the benighted land as casually as if he’d been there and watching us all along. Many years later, I still wonder whether that was the case and he had been waiting all this time for us to follow. That day, he made no comment on our impudence, but instead examined me carefully before nodding his head, satisfied I was all right. That, more than anything, reassured me, for with my mind still in shock, I had begun to doubt who and what I was.
Graemor sat us down, then, and explained as best he could what had happened to me. Then to bring home his lesson, he stepped again across the line that separated us from that horror, and showed us the effects of Shadow. For all his grim demeanor, he was no fool; he made his changes subtle and gradual, lest he terrify us into joining our departed comrades. And yet... seeing a man transform into a creature of Shadow shook each of us to our core. When he was done, and had reassured us that any strong man—or woman, in Bethan's case—could walk in Shadow and still remain human, he began to teach us how we could do the same.
Learning to stand in Shadow was equal parts terror and exhilaration. The terror came from that irresistible outwards pressure that built as soon as you stepped across the line separating our world from that of Shadow; the exhilaration lay in learning how to resist the pressure and instead shape it to our own ends. In time, the terror vanished, replaced by a growing self-confidence and the breathless excitement of feeling like something larger than oneself. Once I understood I was master of Shadow, I could no more have renounced its freedom than I could have renounced breathing.
Those were early days, when Shadow still lay a comfortable distance beyond our circle of Light. It was not always to be so. When the day came that Shadow approached close enough to our village to be seen on the horizon from our most distant field, life in our village changed. Graemor called together our Council and repeated the tale they’d scorned. Though they treated him once more with polite skepticism, each of the us Rangers took our turn confirming what we could of his story; eventually, we mounted an expedition with the Council and anyone who could afford the time away from their fields and who was willing to either laugh in our faces or be convinced. We convinced them in short order, and they returned to town, white and shaking, to bear witness of what they’d seen. Those who tended our Temple of the Light anxiously studied and restudied the few books that spoke of Light and Shadow in anything beyond metaphorical terms found no knowledge of how to stop Shadow from encroaching, other than to keep the Light burning steadily in the Temple, as the scriptures commanded.
Fear of what the Shadow might portend let Graemor wrest an informal sort of command from Haven's Council, at least in this matter, and he began training anyone who could be spared from the fields. Those stolid enough to be trusted with weapons, he taught the art of arms that until they could patrol the boundary between Light and Shadow in case something should choose to cross that boundary. But we few who had been with him since the beginning, and who had the courage to remain with him, officially became his Rangers. It was a heady feeling to see the people of Haven watch us with fear, and sometimes even respect, when we returned from our patrols.
We soon learned that Haven was now surrounded by Shadow and that we had nowhere to run. Not that we could have fled our homes anyway, with the crops still far from harvest and no certain knowledge of anywhere that would give us shelter closer than the capitol from whence I’d come, a journey of many weeks. Graemor sent us endlessly into Shadow, seeking we knew not what, knowing only that we might conceivably find something that might help us avert the spreading darkness. I could have refused to go, as some did, and had I refused, it is doubtful anyone would have forced me; Graemor led us strongly, but knew well enough not to push us beyond our limits, particularly those of us who had not yet seen our sixteenth birthday. On the other hand, it would have been difficult to refuse his command yet still embrace the freedom that was Shadow that called to us from beyond the last tilled field.
Mareth had become my girlfriend during this time, and eventually my lover. Like the wisest of all lovers, she knew not to compete with this other love, though she could rarely hide her displeasure at having to share me. For her, the knowledge that I'd always return to her seemed enough; her trust in me was inspiring, and gave me increasing confidence with each safe return. The knowledge that I was respected in the village for my dangerous profession—even feared by some—made me a man, at least in my own mind. Sadly, the definition of what makes a man expands with time, from being able to touch the river bottom, to earning the right to sleep with a beautiful woman, to so much more these many years later.
But even had I not cherished those times when I fled the Light, however briefly, I would have had little choice but to serve my village in this manner. Such service was the only way to earn a home in the village and a share of the food stores accumulated by the farmers. Playing at being a Ranger remained a safe life, for despite the encroaching darkness, much remained the same. But every now and then, Shadow’s inhabitants found courage to closely approach our circle of Light and carry away a villager or farm animal. When that happened, someone had to brave the darkness to retrieve them—whether dead, mad, or still salvageable. And all the while, as our population slowly dwindled, Shadow closed in, imperceptibly but inevitably.
Continue reading: Chapter 1
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