“Dark wood. Dark passage.”
The only words the girl would say. No matter how many questions Ian could think of, the girl would only respond, “Dark wood. Dark passage.” Every ounce of strength still flowing through his tired veins helped him refrain from reaching out to strangle her.
Ian scooped one last cup of water, convinced it would be his last for days, and drank. He stared at the sun, setting over the far hills of the Wood, the glowing amber ball marking his final destination to the West. He wondered to himself just how many others had passed this way, how many others had taken a drink from this well and spoken to this girl.
And how many others received only the same four words in response.
“I trust you’ll be alright here, alone. You’ve lived through the worst of times, it seems.” He set the cup down, walked over to the girl. No more than 12, eyes sunken, shadowed, the weight of years and horrors yet unseen by most men. The wool blanket Ian had lain across her naked skin upon his arrival now hung loose off her shoulder, as if refusing to shield her from the Dark Wood, the Dark Passage which expanded underneath the setting sun.
Ian blinked, his left eye tearing up in the harsh sting which still and forever haunted the scar along his cheek. He adjusted the blanket. The girl’s eyes moved, flashed to his face, then returned to stare at the ground. Her hands were curled around a small bowl, empty and cold. Ian wondered when it was she’d last eaten. He decided to leave her some of his stew.
He emptied the pot, the remainder of his boiling recipe tumbling into his leather canteen. He saved little more than a ladle’s worth, enough to fill her tiny bowl to the brim. “For your hunger. And for your pain. And for your loving heart within.” He sneered at her, knowing that it looked as painful as it felt. As of late, it was the closest he could come to smile. He learned not to expect one in return.
And none did he receive.
Ian climbed atop his American Saddle Horse, Birinus, whose tail waved to the North. Birinus galloped off with a speed unmatched by any horses the girl had yet seen. She smiled then, now clear of company, and ate the stew heartily.
At the edge of the Wood, Ian reined in Birinus. Birinus slowed to a walk, appreciating the slow gait by raising his head a little higher, eyes wide as his master’s. Ian scoped the brush under the various pine, the trodden path, the spots of blood. He cursed under his breath, the miserable wind offering him little comfort.
Ian pulled his cape tighter across his shoulders and steadied his gaze. The sun continued its’ slow self-burial, all but forgotten behind the Wood. “Dark Wood, indeed,” he muttered, watching over his shoulders.
Twigs snapped, in all directions, it seemed, and a shadow slipped between two overgrown and gnarly shrubs. Ian drew Birinus to a stop. He unsheathed his sword, at once feeling brave and also embarrassed. A warrior drew his sword at the first sound of danger; a true warrior drew at first sight. Only a target required a sword — one cannot simply battle the air in the hopes that he break a speck of dust.
He tried not to stare at his own weapon, but was drawn to it nonetheless: the rust down near the hilt, weathered and strained with age and poor misuse. The blade was dull and blunted at the end, its’ last victim seen over one year ago. The crooks and dull edge suffered more the elements than battle.
He wished, then, for a rifle. A weapon to discharge, even at random, would surely scare away even the darkest of foes — and would surely break more than a speck of dust. But alas, he’d traded for food and supplies rather than weapons, and was stuck once again with his blunted blade and silver-plated chest piece. Wondering if he would even survive another attack, Ian leaped down from Birinus, and led his horse deeper into the Wood.
Ian came upon the clearing so suddenly he felt a sense of vertigo, as if he were falling into a pit of immeasurable death. He looked all around, found he was in the middle of a wide path. To his right, atop a mound of moss and tree root, rested a modest home constructed of old brick and mud. In one window, a candle burned, and in another, an oil lamp. A shadow passed, and the flame of the candle was no more.
Leading Birinus away, Ian hid behind an overturned tree trunk. Above, storm clouds had gathered, blocking out the stars to the east, and painting the western sky a shallow shade of purple. Ian thought of his wife, long-since died in the plague of yesteryear, and how he had promised to avenge her death to anyone who’d crossed him — to the apothecary who had failed to treat her, and to the king and queen who’d shown only disloyalty to the masses. But something about the house atop the mossy tree root stayed his journey for this moment.
And, with the snap of a tree branch to lull him out of his new realization, Ian quickly formed a plan, one which would allow him to take revenge, and to create a new path to a righteous destiny. No longer would he have to wander through Dark Woods, and untrodden passages. The sign on the mossy hut was clear, an insignia born out of ancient runes and replenished only through the magic of elder generations, the breed of Man long since forgotten — and who Ian suddenly remembered, as if a soft scent of roses reminded him that thorns were all around him.
A line of Men marched past, in uniforms with medallions at their shoulders. Every other man carried a torch, such that seven out of the total were alight in flame. They line moved in one single stream, faces forward, marching directly to the home at the corner of the wide path. The man in front knocked, heavily, at the giant wood door.
The door opened, and in the shadow of the entrance, another, darker figure appeared. The figure’s voice was old, weathered, and straining to be heard. “Yes, gentlemen. Have you word from the generals?”
The Man in front replied, “We do, Ambrose. They require your assistance. Have you…” At this, his voice was nothing but a whisper, to be heard only by the man named Ambrose. Ambrose stepped aside, and the Man in front entered the home. The door closed on the line of men, who waited patiently.
Ian continued on the wide path, more determined than before, leading Birinus fiercely onward. He curved to the ditch beside the path, wove through the underbrush and felt the scrape of thorns and broken branches along his knees and shins, not caring enough to stop. His destination now became clear a vision so strong he was compelled to move forward if only to soften the gaze in his mind’s eye. The revelation from moments ago doubled at the name which was uttered, and solidified the memory in his mind’s eye: Ambrose.
As he trekked onward, deeper into this village, buildings appeared, closer together, mostly shops and closed down market huts, a bastion of older times in a world moving on. A passage lay before him, straight into dusk and the darkening ball of the sun ahead of him. But Ian’s journey would make a detour, and when he found himself standing at the door to the antique shop, rain pouring down in thick droplets, Ian realized his fate would finally be complete on this night.
Years ago, it has been told, a man loved his wife more than his own existence. His being was made stronger by her presence in the room, and by her awakening each morning. One morning, she awoke with a cough. The man did not hear her cough, nor did he hear her cry for help, for mercy, as the coughs poured forth blood, and the blood clogged her throat with such horrific speeds as to frighten her beyond living, moments before her heart actually stopped beating. The man would not be susceptible to the same coughing fits, the same deadly plague. He would never fall ill. Such was his curse.
The man had broken into a physician’s home, seeking medical attention, aid for his already-dead wife. Her sudden death was declared by the apothecary, who refused to treat her, unjustly so. And that harsh memory, the cold fact that she was now gone, was entangled with the memory of this medicine man’s name: Ambrose Myrddin.
At Myrddin’s antiques, Ian stared at the sign overhead, waving in the wind. He wondered if Ambrose would produce what was needed of the generals, most likely soldiers at the front lines of the Civil War that continued to plague the nation. These officers would surely seek inhuman aid to defeat the enemy. Such was the way of Men of War.
Ian did not care. What he did care about glittered in the last dying light of the sun, and nearly smiled back at him: The Sword, which bore the name legend and left fear in the throats of men. The Sword, calling to all and yet only to one, its’ new holder, tonight, a man named Ian.
The Once and Future King.
Bags and pockets overflowing with gold, silver, and ancient tools, Ian leaped atop Birinus so suddenly, the horse neighed into the night sky, a sound so loud that Ambrose Myrddin’s eyes jumped from his grinding bowl to the Man in his home. “The Sword,” he said.
And the General and Officers ran from his home, wind at their backs, and made for the town’s main street.
Sword held high, Ian rode Birinus hard, faster than the winds at his back, and as the sun finally laid its’ weary head to rest, he began his Dark Passage through the Dark Wood, the beginning of his next long journey into life dashing dangerously close to the water’s edge as the torches of the Magistrate followed close behind.