" Pleasure is all mine. We love visitors, though people of the empire, alas, mostly tend to avoid and travel around our little settlement. It's usually rather quiet here. " child commented pleasantly, and it clapped its little hands elegantly, at which two people brought big bowl of salt and loaf of bread for them to try.
Svarik took a piece of the salty bread. "To tell the truth, we do not know much about this place. It just looked quite impressive from afar, so we wanted to take a look. Could you please tell us who you are and what is this place?"
" Usually people who end up coming to us tend to know little too, but we are charmed to have peeked your curiosity, good sir. You seem to come from an interesting places yourselves, and we would like to exchange our story with yours. We can't reply everything, and some questions don't really have simple answers - but we can speak later, if you desire. For now, I foremost wish to greet you... " he smiled as he took salted bread himself. " I welcome thee. I have little - but please, do accept the blessing of a host that wishes to give you proper food, shelter and relief from your pains. I shall be that host, and you can call me by the name Emil. "
Svarik was a bit surprised to hear the phrase here, as he assumed it's an archaic custom from the mountains. He wondered if he should give a proper reply, or if knowing it could raise some unwanted questions, but then decided to honor the custom. "I have little - but please, do accept the blessing of a poor soul that seeks place beside your hearth," he said as he bit from the bread, not saying the first part about needing help, because it wasn't true.
Child smiled adorably, seeming pleased with his knowledge of the custom.
He looked at Erdel, repeating the process with him. Vampire was a little more uncomfortable, but as it was only one bite, he felt he could sacrifice that much to eat that little, and repeated king's phrase too.
" It's so nice to meet someone that knows to honor the tradition. I am glad. Now we can meet properly. I told you my name, dear guests - now, do tell me yours! "
" My name is Erdel. " vampire replied right away, though a bit through his teeth, as if he couldn't help himself - probably because request was masked with an order, and he found himself to have to obey. It was apparently very telling of his nature to the child, because it smiled a little wonderingly at him, and nodded head lightly to him as if in respect - but it did not ask anything else from him or abused the power he just gained. Instead, as if nothing strange happened, he turned back to king and gave him a same small kind smile.
" And what about you, dearest guest? " he bid. " What is the name should I call you? And how should I address your beautiful animal companions? "
" The owner, the dog, the kitty, and the fox... All names after Sunlight. It's so lovely theme. " Emil observed the cuties with fascinated look - indeed, seeming more curious about little critters probably not too common around, rather than being surprised or taken aback king's name, not recognizing it. He looked up at Svarik than.
" Those are all lovely names. I will treasure them. " he said solemnly. " Now, as your host, my sweet guests, I must ask: do you plan on staying the night and sharing dinner and breakfast tomorrow morning with us? You most certainly shouldn't be at night anywhere close to the waters. It would be our pleasure to prepare rooms for you all in our fortress while night lasts where you can remain safe. " child said more seriously. " May I interest you in staying? If you plan to leave, however, and are only interested in exploring and enjoying fortress beside us - I will not hold you against your will, weary travelers. You asked nicely for permission, so I will give you keys, but if you accept them, you must promise me you shall follow the rules that come with them and afterwards return them - and either leave us either come back here for a night's rest before the last rays of sunlight touch the surface of the water. If you knock upon our doors even the moment after sun sets, I fear, we won't be able to let you inside, and in that case you may wish to be furthest from the water that you can, so best possible thing you can do is come a little earlier just in case. "
"We wanted to continue our journey before the sun sets," Svarik said. "But maybe we will change our mind yet, we don't really have a set plan. Thank you for allowing us to explore this place. Would you maybe mind telling us a bit more about it, so we understand better what we see? Why is the water so dangerous after sunset?"
" You truly know nothing? Then it is very fortunate that we met. " boy agreed, on most adorable way scratching his pure porcelain skin. " It's not water itself - it's what roams within it during night, from sunrise to sundown. " he explained. " May I interest you in sitting down for a tea? Behind the castle we have a very lovely garden, where we grow our own herbs and vegetables, and teas made form anything that grows in our land is exquisite, I am sure you would enjoy it. I can explain you everything as we have a snack on open air, if you can set the time from your journey for it. "
" Great. I hate when people are in rush. If you always rush it will end up getting you eaten, that's what I like to say. " Emil was pleased. He introduced them to couple other people in the room, and all seemed rather gentle and polite by nature. Then, with help of one older adult, they went to kitchen, from which boy let them choose tea herbs they liked, from a strange rather bright greenly and emerald colored varieties of common plants king knew.
Then, Emil arranged the tea to be made and carried outside on the fresh air, and in the yard of the palace, with a lovely view, where they placed table and couple simple carved wooden chairs to sit upon. Emil was diligent, and he even got some sweet honeyed cookies and some snacks for the animals too.
"So. " he asked when they started drinking and got comfortable, once three of them were left alone. " You wish to know more? I fear our rules forbid us from telling certain things to outsiders. " he explained simply. " But please, ask, dear guests, what interests you - and what I can answer, I will. "
Svarik nodded, sipping from the tea. "If you don't mind a broad question that you can just answer partially, if it shouldn't be answered in full... who are you, and what is the purpose of these two fortresses?"
" Let's start small and clear, then. Mister Svarik, sir Erdel, we happen to be the priesthood of a Forest God. " Emil said as he drank his tea, perfectly calm with the strangers. " Long ago, those lovely streams beaming with life were sick barren fields, and our God was at that time still roaming the world without home or place to stay. But then he found this place, and there was no other God wishing to claim it, and it pleased him - so he made it his home. He had lingering power over plants and great strength, capable to move streams with ease of child moving a toy. And he moved streams of two rivers here, and he planted all the trees miles around, and this patch of land bloomed and became fertile, and he was pleased. While he was working to better it, he had unexpected help from humans - and he made friends among people that once struggled to live in barren places, that thanks to his presence and powers grew so good. With their builders he helped them make those two fortresses - one you see on left and one we live in now. Two cities sprouted around them, and it was good, and Forest God was pleased, for a while... But that, that was a long time ago, and lot happened since... " child smiled. " This place was such so long ago I can not even remember how long it passed? Couple thousand years, probably? I fear none of us here are very good with measuring time, kind guests... "
" Actually we are descendants of the actual priesthood that existed at that time. Couple of us even carry Forest God's blood in our veins, too, from times he would bind with us mortals. Once in a while, new people come and go, but most have moved away long time ago. " Emil explained. " You see, not everyone was happy about his rule. He was strong, but not aggressive - fierce, but kind. Much like your friend over there. " he smiled at vampire lovably. " But he had enemies among other Gods, because he was different. While they were creatures of light, he was creature that preferred shadows and comfortable shade beneath the trees more than anything - but still creature of shadow. We loved and worshiped him for who he was, not what he was, but once he became more famous, his enemies learned of him, and came here. They destroyed lot of both cities, and there was a big battle between them. He killed them and water washed away their bodies as they fell down the waterfall, but he was injured greatly. His wounds healed fully with time and he remained alive, but he stayed weak and crippled. I can't say everything - but let's say nothing helped and some things made it worse too, alas. He may have eaten few people at that time too in his distress, and people lost trust in him. He is able to still maintain this land fertile and safe during day, when all the plants he is bound to are strong from sunlight - but at night, it's different. " boy paused, before he added quietly.
" The Gods he defeated hated him too much, and their hatred remained lingering upon this world, concealed but ever present in its thick fabric. Every night, when our God is too weak, that hatred takes physical form. It eats everything in its path, around river and forts and shores, for many miles around. It tries to find the Forest God and kill him, is what we believe. Anyway, I won't trouble you with details, I know this is quite to take in - but let it be enough to say, that as long as things remain so, safest place you can be in once night falls, is by our side in our fortress, if you plan to stay here. Almost everyone that stayed alive after that long distant battle fled in terror from the dangerous nights in Forbidden forest - but we stayed, and under God's blessing, this fortress is safe. "
Vampire was keeping a straight face, trying not to show much emotions - but his eyes were narrowed and king could see the story stung him somehow and had woken his interest, as he observed boy with a little bathed breath while he spoke, following his each word. Child reassured them, though.
" Oh, no, in name of seven Hells, no - it would have been way to cruel. It's a bit more complicated. " Emil explained. " You see, it's not a creature of flesh and blood that is his enemy - creature that hunts him is hate unraveled and unchallenged, bound to these waters. It is not as much a living thing - it is a ghost, wraith to be more exact. It can't be destroyed, only suffered. It may fade with time, with many thousand years, but time it is to fade away and when our God can finally start to recover, we hope, is still very, very far into the future. Each night, when he is weaker, he does best he can to protect land from his presence alone, but is too weak. We don't let him outside, though, of course. If we did, he most certainly would die, and we don't want that. We keep him safely, in the fortress you asked keys from. It's his domain, filled with protective spells that conceal him from everyone's attention. As long as we keep him there, the wraiths won't find him no matter how hard it seeks. That's why I must tell you how to behave while you are inside, for inside of that place, you are passing through corridors and stairs of what was long ago and still is his home. Alas, for many centuries, he rarely shows himself, so you probably won't see him unless he wants to be seen... But since you are so peculiar guests, to be honest, I hope your presence may amuse and provide him some distraction. He likes observing new visitors, and is happy when people pass through forest without getting eaten. " child shook his head a little sadly. " As you didn't brake in but bid us for permission nicely, you are truly our guests, sire - and you do not have to worry, no harm will come to you, as long as you obey the courtesy law of old and don't do anything I tell you not to. "
"So he actually lives in that fortress and you are his priests and guardians?" Svarik asked with astonishment. "I didn't know we were asking for that when wanting to see the fortress. We thought it was abandoned and we won't disturb anyone with it. Now that we know, we will obey you in all you would ask while we are there..."
" I wouldn't let you in if I sow darkness in your hearts. Nothing ill happened, whenever stranger would come permission and I would give it to them freely. Only problem we ever had, was once or twice when strangers would brake in there uninvited, searching for lost treasures of old or even his head for a trophie, if they would hear about his legend and manage to get there. They would be violent to him, and he would eat them in distress, and then suffer for it for years. We really grieved those few chances because they sadden him so much, but it can't be helped - braking in someone's home is never bound to end well, and I like you; I am glad you asked and thus had not frighten him. " child said fondly.
" Here, this is the key, one key that opens every lock inside of the fort. " he extended them beautiful simple little elegant key with little emerald details, probably old, but with no wearing off from time showing.
" Keep it well. Place it around your neck. It is our sign, between us and the Forest God - as long as he sees that hose that enter carry key with them, he feels safe because that is our sign that we allowed them in and he has nothing to fear from your hands. I will trust you to act accordingly, if you do not desire bad blood between us, dear Svarik, dear Erdel. When you are inside, never take and put in your pockets anything that you are not offered. Do not eat any food upon table unless you are offered. Do not pick any flowers you see growing around. Do not try to take anything unless it's offered to you. Ask when you wish to sit down somewhere inside, and if no reply comes after one minute, it means it's no issue and you can do what you asked to. If wind starts to blow randomly and torch light grows a bit darker, it means what you asked displeases him and means *no*. He often speaks that way, so he would not have to use words or show up. " boy shook his head a little sadly, before his voice grew more serious. " Most important, though - he may show up, he may not, to you, depending how he likes you. But if he does, when he offers you food, you should eat it, or when he offers you something, you should take it. Sometimes he can get a bit strange.. Sometimes, he will give you golden rings, sometimes, he will instead give you crusts of bread or small clovers... He can be a bit inconsistent, but you should not refuse him. And another equally important thing - with this key, you can open every lock in fort, but one, you must not open. If you see him, you will know which - around God's hands, there are light shackles. We must keep him locked, so desire to go outside would not overcome him, and so he would not go outside, because doing so will kill him. No matter if he pleads you or not - you must not release him if you wish him to live, and if you do not wish our thousands of years of keeping him safe to be for nothing, dear guests... "
"I understand, but it's sad..." Svarik sighed. "Did he get at least a little stronger in the time you are keeping him here? Is there a chance he will recover with more time and be strong enough so he can be free again?"
" He was on verge of death for first couple of centuries and now he's not, so, of course, we have our hopes of him getting better sooner than later. It's just that our *soon* measures more in thousands of years than in couple of days. " Emil explained with soft smile upon his face. " I am happy to see how kind are your hearts, but please, do not fret for us. I wouldn't have told you most of this, had I judged you would not trust me, but our problems can be solved but with time and land getting better. We have to wait, until time slowly cleans hatred out from this place. It will take lot of time, but we will wait. Besides, it's just a technicality which you, peculiar as you are, may know of or may not about, but while this Winter Solstice was very hard on our Forest God, next couple centuries of winter solstices should be easier on him than any since that empire was founded. " child grinned bit more brightly. " So we do have some hopes. Little, nice bits of hopes, may I say, dear guests. But sometimes, when you have nothing else, even bit of hope will do to help you get through hard times. "
Svarik nodded thoughtfully. "May I have one more question, Emil?" he asked. "Why is the fort abandoned and empty, with only him living there? Does he prefer solitude? He does like visitors, you said though... Wouldn't he like it more to live here with you?"
" There are lot of reasons, safety reasons mostly. However, it was too his home during his glorious years, while two cities around them were thriving. There he lived, with human woman that become his wife, and a child that was my ancestor. " Emil explained. " He only feels safe there, so there he remained. Over thousands of years, we filled the whole place with millions of protective spells and enchantments, that make sure nothing can destroy the fortress or detect him there, and we, as you can see, bricked in and covered all windows so nothing can slip in and door is only entrance. He is safe there. His disfigurement and weakness makes him ever sad, though, and he is sad to have to take from us without able to give back much. To be honest, while he enjoys kind visitors, he much more rarely shows to us these days... " child shook its head a little sadly. " He has to remain in that fort so wraiths can't trace him and hunt him down by following threads of his power - that's why he can not leave the fortress. We on other hand, alas, can not live inside his fortress ourselves. I do not want to frighten you, with all the technicalities - but our Forest God, even in his lowest, has quite a bit of power that sips around him when he is too upset to control himself. At night, when he is upset and fearful, some of that power sips outside of him. It is part of his might that is called miasma, though, and miasma is not good to be around, and some of ti always stays lingering in traces even after he calms, as his fortress is completely closed to outside world and all of it stays inside. For you, visitors, a day or two of sensing traces of left in the air won't do anything - it's but a distant cold breeze. But prolonged experience of it can poison humans. We can only stay there for an hour or so every day, each time someone different from us, to make sure it doesn't make us ill over many years we have to stay here. That is how Forest God wanted. He doesn't prefer solitude as his nature - but he doesn't want to harm us in his distress, so he chooses solitude rather than our company, because that is safest for all of us. I fear, as I said, most of the time he rather chooses not to show himself to us at all... I suspect, he deems, it's easier for us to be separate from him, when we do not look forward to see him every time we go inside to bring him food or tidy up the place, so we do not grieve each time visit has to come to an end, and so we don't choose to rather stay longer and end up getting ill, instead of going back here to safety. "