Myths - The Fourth Age Shadow Wars
Chapter One: Platonia
Huw Gilliand prepared to leave the gardens surrounding the Well of Life in the center of Platonia an hour before sunset. He was to meet his friends, Berwyn, Reginard, and Rolant, at Berwyn's inn, the Bull and Boar, for supper. The gardens grew all around him, flowers and more beds of flowers in a rough circle, surrounding the ancient well. The well was more spring than well, but it had been called a well for hundreds of years, as waters from deep within the earth rose up and over moss-covered stones set low upon the ground. Brilliant blue water of a hue unknown outside the gardens streamed to the surface, pouring over a low stone lip worn smooth by countless centuries and splashing into a pool twelve feet wide and twenty feet long before forming a narrow, deep channel that flowed to the southern end of the gardens. There it sluiced away under a small arch to form the Stream of Life, slowly winding its way to the southern end of Platonia, where it merged with the great river Beadle and flowed into the sea.
Huw gazed about the gardens, surveying the new young plants in their fresh beds, replacements for the luxuriant flower beds destroyed by the Vandal, as he was known. Recalling the crime, Huw remembered the Man who had penetrated the safety and security of Platonia, laying waste to several flower beds: flowers that grew nowhere else, as far as Huw knew. How this Man could have invaded Platonia and why he had destroyed these flower beds was unknown, as he had refused to answer any questions. The Gracies took him to the eastern edge of Platonia and placed him in a boat to give him to Frederick, Prince of Amadeus, for trial.
Huw, as chief acolyte of the gardens, had been in the boat as Gracie rowers pushed away from the shore. Suddenly the Man, who had been silent for three days, began repeating a mantra that sounded much like a Shardan prayer Huw had heard once during his education with the Elves of Phoenicia. The boat was surrounded by water spirits, creatures that took corporeal form by amalgamating river foam, from which their name, Bubblers, was derived. They tipped the boat on its side and pulled the Vandal into the cold, swift-flowing water of the Beadle. He did not surface. As the rowers brought the boat back to the Platonia shore, Huw had been uneasy in his mind: such devotion to the destruction of a few plants made no logical sense to Huw.
A pacific people, the Gracies were shocked by this murder by their protectors, miscreant or no. Recalling the story brought sadness to Huw, though it was nearly a year since the incident. He was about to turn and leave the gardens, when he heard the unmistakable sounds of a Bubbler rising to the surface. Turning, he saw a bearded head form on the surface of the water, its translucent arms appearing and disappearing as the water fought to stay above its own surface in an endless dance.
'Huw, come to me now and listen,' said the Bubbler in a high-pitched voice, like that of a child making noises under water.
Shocked, Huw moved toward the Well; no living Gracie had ever heard a Bubbler speak outside the river Beadle, and even then, they offered greetings, not conversation. Striding back to the edge of the pool, Huw knelt and offered the traditional obeisance of an acolyte. Swiftly the Bubbler said, 'Platonia is in danger. We Bubblers are reaching the last of our strength.'
'You can't fail,' said a shocked Huw. 'You are the Bubblers, immortal river creatures who have always protected Platonia.'
'We are immortal, but if we cannot renew ourselves here in the Well of Life, we will become no more, and this we can no longer do.'
'There is no time to explain; you must aid our renewal, or we will be lost, unable to protect Platonia against the greed of Men and the other races.'
'What can we do?' asked a stunned Huw.
'You must save the Gemwings, our only source of hope, or we will disappear in less than a year.'
'Gemwings,' asked Huw, thinking of the legendary insects, presumed to exist, but never actually seen. 'How can I save the Gemwings? Do they even exist?'
'You will come to know that from the Gemwings themselves. Only they can tell you how to save them, us, and Platonia. Fail and you doom Platonia to the destruction of Men.' With that the Bubbler dissolved back into the waters of the well.
Rising, Huw moved woodenly toward the entrance of the gardens, in shock from the conversation. Simple wooden doors were there, ritually closed at sunset and opened at dawn, when the acolytes would gather around the Well of Life, dipping into its unique waters and feeling the life force of Nostraterra course through their bodies.
Becoming an acolyte was a choice made by Gracies at any time of their lives, but their desire had to be granted by the Bubblers. Gracies wanting to serve the Bubblers would immerse themselves in the icy waters of the Beadle each spring equinox. Those chosen by the Bubblers were touched on the shoulder by a Bubbler, but those rejected would have only minutes of life before the icy cold waters leached the heat from their bones.
If you served as an acolyte you were respected greatly, and you could drink the Waters of Life every day; an excess usually frowned upon by Gracies. The Waters of Life extended a Gracie's lifespan from the usual hundred years or so to nearly two hundred years.
Now Huw, chief acolyte during his time, had the impossible task of securing the safety of Platonia by saving the legendary Gemwings. Every midsummer's night, the gardens were closed and all were forbidden from entering, even if their need was compelling. During the dark of the moon, when only the stars shone down, the acolytes listened for the high-pitched buzzing of many wings, which according to history signaled the arrival of the Gemwings into the gardens. Once an ambitious Gracie hid within the gardens to see the mythical Gemwings, but all heard a terrible shriek within the gardens and all nearby felt a dark foreboding and dared not enter the gardens that night. The next day, no trace of the Gracie was found; only later, along the shores of the southern end of Platonia, were his clothes found.
The Gemwings were a mysterious implacable force to be reckoned with; their secrets were their own, undisclosed even by the Bubblers. Huw shook his head when he thought that he was charged to seek out the creatures of myth and legend, much less make contact with them. Leaving the gardens, he closed the doors behind him and strode off, shaking and trembling in fear, toward Berwyn's inn to have dinner with his friends.
Huw paused on a simple country lane covered in white gravel as evening drew down upon him, fifty feet or so from the Bull and Boar, unsure of what to say to his friends, with little idea as to how to find the Gemwings, much less save them. Approaching the inn, he smelled the delicious nutty odor of fresh-baked bread, roasted potatoes, and the somewhat disquieting aroma of roasting meats. Huw, while abstaining from meat of any kind, did not criticize those who consumed it, but the thought of eating something that had once drawn breath made him shudder.
Striding forward, Huw entered the inn and saw the usual crowd of Gracies come in from their farms and orchards. Late spring meant many of the folk were exercising their elbows after finishing the last of the planting or pruning. Hearing his name called from across the room, Huw saw his friends, Berwyn, Rolly, and Reggie, gathered at a far table in the corner away from the fire. Huw tried to force the fear and uncertainty of the Bubbler's news from his mind as he ordered another full pitcher of ale from a Gracie server, then joined his friends with false cheer, hoping to enjoy 'an ale and a tale,' as Berwyn said.
Berwyn, his oldest friend, glanced up at him and, seeing the poorly hidden concern, asked, 'Huw, are you alright?'
'Fine, fine,' said Huw in a slightly breathless voice. 'I see that business is good.'
'No worse than usual,' replied Berwyn dourly. 'You are just in time to hear the tale of Reggie and Rolly now that they have returned from their camping trip.'
'Camping trip, yes, I forgot for a moment—you've been gone over a week. Where did you go?' asked Huw in a thin voice.
'We were on the Flowery Plateau,' began Rolly, when Reggie hushed him and said, 'Let's not be overheard.'
Huw knew that the flowery plateau was formed by the divergence of the river Beadle at the north end of Platonia and encompassed nearly a hundred square miles of wild flowers and grasses. A dense barrier of trees over a mile wide divided the farms and grazing pastures of the Gracies from the plateau, which was best reached by boat rather than through the tangled forest.
Huw received another concerned look from Berwyn, but ignoring it said, 'Overheard? What are you talking about?'
Rolly said, 'I don't want people laughing at me again.'
'Laughing about what?' asked Huw.
Rolly's ears began to flush when Berwyn, the least imaginative of the group, said, 'Oh you're not on about that giant dragonfly again, are you? On the Plateau? One of the mythical Gemwings?'
'Yes,' replied Rolly heatedly. 'And if you want to know, it was to get another glimpse of a Gemwing that Reggie and I spent a week camping and quietly walking around the plateau.'
'Enough. Let's adjourn to the roof before we continue this conversation.' said Huw. Taking their tankards of ale with them, each of the Gracies grabbed a fresh pitcher from the bar and then followed Berwyn up the inner stair to the wooden deck surrounded by a wooden lattice fence, where several tables and chair stood. Tonight it was a bit cool, and they had the deck to themselves.
'Now lock the door,' demanded Huw of Berwyn.
His friend moved to do so, muttering under his breath.
'What do you mean another?' asked Huw. 'When did you see one the first time?'
'I saw one last month, or at least I think so, from one of my family's ferry boats that I used to fish above the landing,' said Rolly defensively. 'It was a Gemwing, I tell you.'
'A Gemwing, are you certain?' asked Huw with a leap in his heart.
'Well, the spring floods haven't started yet with the cold weather, and the usual ferry traffic slowed down the past weeks, so I had time to see if there was really a Gemwing up on the Flowery Plateau. Reggie wanted to come along, and we just got back.'
'You could have been killed, both of you! You know what happened to the last Gracie that was caught by the Gemwings, don't you?' demanded a flustered Berwyn.
'Of course we know! But that Gracie just disappeared, didn't he?' retorted Rolly. 'No one knows what actually happened to him. Besides, chasing myths makes a welcome break from work.'
'And did you see one?' asked Huw.
'No,' said Rolly.
'There, I told you,' began Berwyn with a look of smug satisfaction.
'It was Reggie who saw the Gemwing this time,' said Rolly. 'Go on, Reggie, tell them.'
Sheepishly, Reggie said, 'It was late in the evening three nights ago. We had finished our meal and had some ale from our packs, but I couldn't sleep, so I got up and walked away from the fire a few yards and saw the full moon just begin to rise in the east. I listened to the water in the river for a few minutes and began to get sleepy, so I turned back toward the fire. Suddenly the tip of my nose was burnt, and I saw a flash of color and giant wings disappearing into the night.'
This elicited a dark laugh from Berwyn. 'Serves you right for drinking and walking in your sleep; lucky you didn't fall in the river instead.'
'Ignore him, Reggie,' said Huw. 'What happened next?'
'Nothing,' said Rolly. 'I put some salve on my nose and lay down to sleep.'
'So you think that was a Gemwing?' asked Berwyn dubiously, ignoring Huw's glance to keep silent.
'Yes,' replied Reggie mulishly. 'How do you get your nose burnt from cool, damp air when you are a dozen feet from a campfire banked in its own ashes?'
'Huw, help me here,' implored Berwyn. 'You spent years amongst the Elves and are the chief acolyte of the Gardens. Did you ever hear of anything more outlandish than this tale?'
'Yes, as a matter of fact. Today I spoke with a Bubbler.'
Briefly Huw explained his encounter with the Bubbler in the Garden. Seeing even Berwyn's skeptical face go pale, he finished his tale by stating that he had to go in search of the mythical Gemwings.