A Coming of Age
Konrad turned back to Ostfort as he reached the peak of the hill outside town. He had left home early in the morning, before the first rays of sunlight. Today was an important day for him, his fifteenth birthday. Every boy in Ostfort went on a quest when they reached the age of fifteen, a coming of age ritual where they would retrieve a fruit of the gorn tree. The gorn fruit were rich in aromatic oils, not much good for eating, but useful for many other purposes. In this case, the boy would be anointed with the oil of the gorn fruit, symbolizing his passage into manhood.
Konrad waited atop the hill. He didn't need a rest, not yet, but he wanted to wait for the sight. Soon enough, the dawn began to light the sky behind Ostfort. Konrad watched the sight, a grin pulling at his mouth. His city was neither large, nor luxurious. It had a wooden palisade circling the hundred or so family houses, with room left to add more as the clan grew. There were also several large pastures to keep livestock in the case of attack. Fields surrounded the city, but the farmers all lived in the city. The area directly around Ostfort was kept reasonably safe for the Northern Wilds, but there were still plenty of potential threats, so nobody wanted to risk living outside the wall.
Taking a deep breath and enjoying the fresh smell of dew, while the morning sun began to warm his face, Konrad turned his back on Ostfort. It was time to begin his quest proper.
He scanned the landscape before him. It was a poorly hidden secret that some of the adults would set traps and other obstacles to try to make things more difficult for those on the quest, though this also doubled as a sort of guard, to make sure nothing too dangerous happened. Ostfort wanted to make sure their kids were ready to be men, not see them slaughtered by chance because something dangerous wandered closer to town than usual.
After examining things closely, Konrad was unable to spot any signs of the adults, but that didn't mean anything. The hunters were experts in camouflage, and some of the younger adults had even implied that the shamans sent a representative. If that was the case, Konrad would not be finding them period, even had he been a prodigy.
There was nothing else for him, so Konrad set forth, slowly at first while checking again that all his gear was in place. He was lightly armored, wearing a gambeson and helmet. He had a long bastard sword, suitable for using in two hands, or in one hand with his shield, in case he needed to fight defensively. A couple of axes, weighted for throwing, hung from his belt. He had a pack with basic bedding, rope, and several other tools that might come in handy. And, stashed in one of the side pouches of his pack were a handful of pills created by the shamans. Three would give his body a temporary boost in its ability to recover, another would overwrite his strength limiters for a short time, granting him extra strength in an emergency, the last would sharpen his mind, granting him clarity and focus, even warding off the mental effects of fatigue.
Satisfied that everything was in place, Konrad increased his pace to a quick march. Most of the boys his age would tire quickly at this pace, but Konrad had always been training his endurance. He may not be as strong as the others his age, but he had been blessed with great stamina. In the long run, that would be a more useful skill anyway, in Konrad's estimation.
He hiked hard until around noon, when he stopped in a small grove. He ate a bit of his rations, and rested out of the sun for a bit. He had seen no sign of the adults yet, but he supposed they may wait until he got to the forest to ambush him with anything. At his current pace, Konrad figured he could reach the forest by midafternoon, allowing him to begin searching for the fruit before sundown.
Those coming of age were not told exactly where the fruit would be, just that it was in the forest. Konrad supposed it was a part of their quest to actually search it out. They would need to use any skills they had learned until that point to find their way, and survive until they could do so.
Konrad checked the sun and decided he had spent enough time loitering. He began his march anew, passing quickly over and around the low hills on his way west. By now, the sun had passed its peak and was now in the western sky. Unfortunately, this also meant the sun was now in Konrad's eyes, rather than against his back.
Fortunately, Konrad's prediction was correct, and he reached the forest quickly after his rest, meaning he didn't spend much time with the sun in his eyes. He slowed as he entered the forest, letting his eyes adjust to the dimmer light, tinted green by the leaves above.
As his eyes adjusted, Konrad heard a long, piercing screech break the silence around him. It was growing closer, quickly, and Konrad threw himself away from the sound. Despite his efforts to dodge, he felt a massive limb slam into his back, sending him rolling. Stupid, he thought, I needed to move to the side, not straight away. He landed in a heap, and scrambled to his feet while pulling his shield off his back.
Konrad felt the air whoosh behind him, and leapt low to the side. He heard the creature slam into a tree that had been behind him as he landed. Rather than immediately turn, Konrad danced around a couple of trees, putting some obstacles between him and his pursuer. Once he felt he had a moment to breath, he turned to examine the attacker.
It was mostly bear shaped, with four long limbs that ended in large paws with claws like daggers. It was massive and covered in shaggy fur as well. That was where the similarities ended. Its snout was much longer than any bear, and reminded Konrad of a goat's face, though it had the sharp teeth of a bear. It had long curly horns, also reminiscent of a goat. By now, it had turned again and refocused on Konrad. Its eyes stared at Konrad with hatred piercing right to his core. This thing wasn't interested in hunting Konrad. It was interested in killing him.
Konrad pulled his sword from its scabbard and faced the bear creature, keeping a few trees between them. There was no way he could take a direct hit from this thing, so for now it would be best to fight defensively. Surely this was the sort of thing that should not be in his path and the adults would intervene soon.
And so, Konrad danced around the creature. He would attempt a strike when it would overswing, but none of his attacks drew blood. On the other hand, he was successful in remaining out of its reach, as keeping the trees between them frustrated its straightforward attacking style.
As the fight wore on, Konrad began to worry. Where were the adults, surely they should have stepped in by now. As the thought crossed his mind, he spotted something poking out from the creature's fur. There was a broken shaft poking out from underneath its ribcage. The shaft was thick, and Konrad suspected it was a Ostfort spear shaft.
That did not bode well, he thought. This bear creature had been confronted by warriors of Ostfort in the past, and had lived through the experience. Perhaps it had even fought off the adults that were supposed to be trailing him. What chance did Konrad stand then? But, try as he might, he could not devise a good escape strategy either.
As he was dodging around the forest, considering his options, Konrad's foot landed on something smooth and slick, sliding back. He pitched forward, barely managing to catch himself on the face of his shield. The creature was bowling towards him again though, so Konrad shoved to the side, pushing himself into a roll away from the charge.
As he returned to his feet, Konrad looked for what had tripped him, and he saw an Ostfort breastplate slick with blood showing though the undergrowth. He grit his teeth; full warriors had died to this thing, he didn't stand a chance. But running wasn't an option either, the creature was far too persistent.
Konrad returned his sword to its scabbard. For now it was not helping him, and he needed a free hand. He reached behind him and began digging around in the side pocket on his pack. A couple of the pills inside spilt to the ground, but he managed to come away with what he was looking for, Strength enhancement. It was a dangerous drug, one that could severely harm the user, but at this point, Konrad had no other good options. He swallowed the pill down and began looking around the environment.
The pill took effect quickly. It was designed to be used at the start of a battle, to give a boost when fighting something particularly dangerous, so it had to move fast. As he felt his mind loosen control over the limit of his muscles, he spotted what he had been looking for. Ahead, a limb had fallen from an oak tree and lodged against another one. Konrad pulled out his rope and hastily tied it to one of his throwing axes. When he got close enough, he threw the axe hard, and watched it over shoot his target. He cinched up on the rope, stopping the axe short. It dropped to shoulder height, and Konrad snatched it as he passed.
Konrad glanced over his shoulder as he ran past the fallen branch, judging the distance between him and the creature. A moment later, he stopped short, and pulled with all his strength. He felt his muscle fibers tearing, but his ploy was successful. The branch fell to the ground, pinning the bear creature as it ran under.
Before the creature could overcome its shock at being pinned, Konrad had crossed back to where it now lay. His sword was back out of its scabbard in an instant, and he chopped down with all his strength. Despite his best blow, tearing even more of his muscles, it still took several hits to completely sever the creature's head. Panting with the exertion, Konrad let the heightened state of his mind that was allowing him to use his full muscle power drop.
Having finished fighting, the adrenaline left him as well. Konrad stood for a few minutes, just trying to catch his breath. He felt his arms growing sore rapidly and grimaced. He checked the pocket in his pack. He still had his clarity pill, and one of the recovery pills. He swallowed the recovery pill right away. It would be more useful when he was sleeping, but he needed everything he could get at this point. He considered for a moment, then tied the creature's head to his belt. If nothing else, it would make a great trophy.
That done, Konrad started back the way he had come. Soon enough, he found the fallen warrior. As he was looking over the gear the warrior had been carrying, a feminine voice called out from the forest. “Hello! Is that strange beast gone now?”
Konrad looked around, and saw a young woman who appeared not much older than himself. She was well endowed, and wearing a tight dress that accentuated her curves. Her black hair formed perfect waves down her back, and she had a light touch of makeup bringing out her eyes and lips. She was far to well put together to be just a woman wandering through the woods. Her eyes went to the creature's head on his belt. They widened slightly before jumping back to Konrad's eyes.
“What happened to you?” Konrad asked. “How did you get out here?”
“I'm afraid I am lost,” the woman replied. “Can I travel with you until I figure out where I am? You seem to have dealt with that creature quite well, so I would like your protection.”
“Right,” Konrad said. “I suppose I can help you for now... uh...”
“Oh! Sorry, my name is Mergalia.” The woman gave a slight bow as she introduced herself.
“Konrad,” Konrad replied stiffly. He was studying the forest around them, trying not to look to much at Mergalia. “Anyway, we should get a move on. I have to locate something before I can leave the forest.”
Mergalia hurried after Konrad, clutching onto his arm. “What are you looking for? Is it important?”
“Yes,” Konrad said, stiffening at her touch. “Can you please not cling to me? I need to be able to react if something else attacks.”
“Right, right, sorry,” Mergalia said, pouting a bit. She moved to walk a bit behind Konrad. “So, what are you looking for? Maybe I can help spot it.”
Konrad considered for a moment. It was supposed to be his quest. But, on the other hand, he had never heard of anybody having to fight anything like that creature, so he supposed he would just have an unusual quest. “I am looking for a gorn tree. Best I know about them is that they require a lot of water to grow, so I am looking for rivers or lakes.”
Mergalia nodded thoughtfully. “Very well,” she said brightly, “I shall help you find a gorn tree.”
The two of them walked for a while, and Konrad quickly came to a realization. He should have noticed something was off when he first entered the forest. It had been far to quiet. Now, the forest was alive with noise, birds singing, small mammals scampering around, insects buzzing and chirping. “The forest is far more pleasant that I had initially realized,” Konrad remarked. “I didn't expect it to be so alive.”
Mergalia smiled at him. She had been stopping to peer at everything from flowers to squirrels to butterflies. Konrad felt he should have been more annoyed at this behavior — they were in a hurry after all — but he could not help but feel protective of this joyful young lady.
A short while later and a new noise sounded from the south. It was the telling roar of a river rapids, or maybe even a waterfall. Konrad and Mergalia looked at each other knowingly and both turned to pursue the new sound. Shortly, the came upon a small waterfall. The river that was winding its way through the forest was perhaps twenty feet across and went over a short drop where they found it, creating a small pond at the base of the falls.
Looking around, Konrad spotted gorn trees immediately. The fruits were as large as his head, and grew from long vines that drooped all the way to the ground. Konrad picked up one of the fruits. It had a tough exterior and felt like it would hold together reasonably well while he traveled back to Ostfort. As he was examining the fruit, he thought he heard Mergalia whispering something. He distinctly heard the word “...mine...”.
“What was that?” He asked, turning towards her.
“I was merely marveling at these fruits. They are so fascinating. Would it be a problem if I took one as well? They aren't sacred to your people are they?”
“I mean, they are used in ceremonies, and for food, but I doubt there would be any issue if you wanted one as well. There are plenty growing.” Konrad gestured around the plentiful gorn trees growing near the river.
“Indeed,” Mergalia said, smiling joyfully as she bent to pick up a fruit. Konrad packed his own fruit into his pack, wrapping it in his bedding. While the fruit was tough, he didn't want to take any chances.
Looking overhead, Konrad found the sun was more than halfway across the western sky. They had a few hours left before dusk, but they would probably have to spend the night in the forest.
“We should travel along the river for now,” Konrad said. “It is a good landmark, and goes about parallel to the track we came in on. It was lucky we caught the sound of the falls. We could have gone much further before the river curved into the path we were on.”
Mergalia nodded her approval of the decision, and the two set out. After a few hours, as the sun began to set, the two set up a basic camp. Konrad offered his bedding to Mergalia, seeing as she had nothing at all aside from her dress and the fruit.
“Should we watch through the night?” Mergalia asked.
“No need,” Konrad replied. “We are trained to sleep light. I will wake if there are any issues.” While that was not strictly true, Konrad was not going to reveal his people's secrets to an outsider, even one as gorgeous and joyful as Mergalia. He was actually going to take his clarity pill, which should both last through the night, and sharpen his senses enough to wake him should something require his attention.
As he slept, Konrad found himself in a dream. He was facing down the bear creature once again, his sword in hand. Strangely, he recognized the dream for what it was. Perhaps a side effect of the pill? Either way, Konrad had thought that dreams were supposed to end when you recognized them as such.
At that thought a tittering laughter sounded. “Not quite silly! I have you locking in my dreamscape. No escape for you.” He looked around to see Mergalia flying above him, perhaps fifteen feet in the air.
“No problem,” Konrad said. “I was able to evade one of these well enough when I was awake. I don't need to kill it, just stay away until I wake.”
“Maybe, but remember, your muscles are all sore from your strengthening pill.”
Konrad had mostly recovered from that, and was about to tell her so when he felt his muscles aching all over. “What the...” he said, confused.
“This is a dream silly, your mind is king here. Or, rather, I should say mine is.”
That wasn't right. This was supposed to be his dream after all. Konrad focused hard on his aching muscles, reminding them that they had healed already. As he did, he felt the ache subside. Just in time too, as the creature charged him. Konrad jumped to the side, putting a tree between him and the creature, just as he had before.
“What!? How can you control the dream? You shouldn't have any experience here!” Mergalia's face had twisted into confusion and anger. She gestured at him, hands making complex movements.
As she did, Konrad finally realized what she was, a witch. As he came to the realization, his sword dulled and his armor vanished. He jumped to the side again as the creature charged once more, its horns lowered. “You're a witch, aren't you?” Konrad called out.
“Yes, I suppose that is what you would call me,” Mergalia muttered, just audibly. She looked exasperated to Konrad.
Konrad decided to ignore her for now. The bear creature was much more important. While she could dull his weapon and remove his armor, the creature could kill and eat him. He focused on the sword, and it became sharp once again. Then a thought occurred to him. This was a dream, and he could control things, so how far did that power extend?
Konrad turned to the charging creature, and commanded the trees to ensnare it. Roots pulled up from the ground and lashed around the creature, pulling it to the ground. It thrashed and snarled as he walked up to it.
“Hey, stop that!” Mergalia called to him.
Konrad looked back to her. “This is my dream. That makes this my head. I make the rules. And you aren't welcome anymore.” Konrad focused all of his will on pushing Mergalia. But, he wasn't trying to push her back through space. Rather, he was trying to push her out. He felt her pushing back, trying desperately to remain in place. But, for whatever reason, whether he simply had a strong willpower, or his mind was being reinforced by the pill he had taken, the witch could not resist his push for long. With a popping noise, Mergalia quickly shrunk to the size of a pea and then disappeared.
Konrad took a deep breath as he faced back towards the bear creature, where it continued to rage against the roots that held it in place. “I have no need to slay you. After all, this is just a dream. Now, if only I could wake up...” And as he finished speaking, the dream faded and he woke with a jerk.
He looked around, trying to find Mergalia, but his bedding lay in a heap on the ground where she had been sleeping. Apparently, she had fled after being ejected from his dream. All the better for her, Konrad supposed. He would have killed her had she remained here.
Looking to the sky, Konrad determined that it was still the middle of the night. Despite that, he did not feel the least bit tired. Additionally, the full moon was high tonight, casting plenty of light for him to make out the path by, so he decided to head back towards home right away. No sense in waiting around, he figured.
Konrad walked through the night, and reached the edge of the forest as dawn was breaking. He smiled as he strode up to a nearby hill to watch the sunrise. He had always enjoyed the sight of reds, oranges, yellows, and purples bleeding into the deep blue of the night sky as the sun transitioned over the horizon. He watched until the sun was properly risen, then set out once more.
Konrad arrived back in Ostfort without any issue later in the afternoon. He had slowed his pace that day, not wanting to push himself too hard after having used so many pills in rapid succession. They weren't supposed to have additional side-effects, but he didn't feel like taking his chances.
His family was delighted to see him return, but the town grieved for the loss of the warrior that had been watching over him. Konrad offered the warrior's widow the head of the creature as a token of appreciation for her late husband's aid, but she refused him, saying that he should mount it himself.
The next day, as the sun was rising, he was brought to the high priest, who offered the coming of age ceremony. It was a long affair, with many vows to be sworn, binding him to service of family, people, and town. He only had to remember his part, however, and it was simple; “I swear,” a response to whatever vow the priest intoned.
Finally, as he uttered his last vow, the priest had him rise and face the townspeople. “Here is Konrad, the newest member of our people! Konrad, we are all expecting great things from you.” This last line was a bit off script, but Konrad chalked it up to word having spread of the creature he had slain.
The priest cracked the gorn fruit, and Konrad tilted his head back. Taking the halved of fruit, the priest poured the sweet smelling oil over Konrad's hair and face, anointing him. “Konrad, with this anointing of gorn oil, I declare you a full fledged member of the town of Ostfort! Carry yourself with pride, and be recognized by your peers!” The crowd cheered and clapped, and Konrad smiled. He had made it to adulthood.
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