My name is Ash McLeod and I am thirty-seven years old. I have a mundane job that contributes very little to society as a data entry clerk in a city’s statistics branch. Yesterday, I was at my dad’s funeral. It was there that I saw my brother for the first time in a very, very long time.
I’m sitting here right now, in my bleak apartment thinking back to our lives as kids and how I got to this point. You see, right now, my life is like a grayscale display. There is no depth or meaning and no colour. Unlike when I was younger. I want to tell you all about the amazing life I lived as a kid and the fantastic world I discovered with my best friend, Michael. It was in that world where I found peace and strength to face the terrors of my real life.
So, I’ll start you off at the beginning. I have an identical twin brother and we didn’t really come into the world in the best of circumstances. My mom didn’t survive the labour. I grew up in a household that… well, quite frankly I didn’t want to be there. I would get home from school and almost immediately head out into the forest behind my house to play with my best friend, Michael Draw.
He was my friend from before I can remember. Our moms were friends in college so after I was born, I would always be babysat by Michael’s mom. Even throughout my childhood, I spent many nights and weekends pretending to be a part of Michael’s family. Michael’s whole, peaceful family.
Louis however, rarely came into the woods to play and rarely went over to friends’ houses. He was always taking the brunt of whatever conflict was going on at home. He’d come home from school, sit on the couch and listen to my dad yell at our step-mom, and her yelling back! Sometimes I wondered if they ever spoke. Louis and I would lie awake at night in bed listening to the arguing: it was never fun. But it was normal.
Somehow, it never bothered me. I smiled at my red-faced parental figures as I left the house and ran into the woods: feeling nothing but glee!
One gleeful afternoon — it was summer and school was out — Michael and I went deeper into the forest we had ever been. The trees seemed to get bigger and bigger. The ground was brown and filled with twigs and wonderful smelling dirt. I remember it so clearly: I approached a stream that was icy cold despite it being a hot day. I put my bare feet in the way (we were always barefoot) and was calm in the coolness. Suddenly, I heard the splash of someone stepping into the stream on the other side. It wasn’t Michael, he was off climbing a tree somewhere. Before me, stood a tall woman with golden hair that flowed to her waist. She was incredible. She drew me in a maternal way. She had light brown skin and pointed ears. She smiled and said, “What is your name?” in a rather fair voice.
“My name is Ash.”
“Would you care to join us for a meal?”
“Yes,” she said as she laughed. “I am Orajdi. I am one of many dwellers of this forest.”
“Orajdi? You live out here?” I was very confused but my heart was racing with excitement.
She laughed even more. “In a way. Come, child. Bring your friend too.” She began walking away from the stream.
“Michael!” I remember yelling his name so loud but not letting my eyes leave Orajdi’s back. “Michael!”
“What is it, man?” Michael asked while running.
“Do you see her?” I asked as I splashed through the stream.
“Yeah! What is she, a hippy?”
“I don’t know! I think she lives here. She wants us to join her and the others for a meal.”
We bother walked briskly through the forest, catching up to her.
“We better not be the meal, man,” Michael joked.
“You will not be, fair boy.” Orajdi turned and smiled, her hair twirling as she did. “We do not eat meat.”
“That’s not the only reason, right?” he responded with a scoff. I was quick to elbow his ribs in protest.
“Ma’am,” Michael began. “What are you wearing?”
“Michael!” I yelled and whispered at the same time. Although I was curious about the same thing. She wore a dress that looked like leather but flowed like silk. It was a deep green and had complex embroidering. Orajdi said nothing and kept walking.
I don’t know how long we carried on for but at last, we reached it: the village by the river. I called it that because Orajdi’s village was in the most amazing open canyon and nestled next to a peaceful, yet ever wide river. We cleared the trees and to my right was the highest mountain and to my left were the tallest trees stretching on into the sunset. Before us, sat that beautiful purple roofed village filled with the gentlest of folk I have ever met: Orajdi’s people.
Michael and I were speechless. First of all, I didn’t know any mountains were nearby and second, I hadn’t seen any town like the village by the river! Its stone buildings were all made of marbled white stone and the plated roofs on top were a deep purple. The river that flowed around and through the village in little streams was a dark blue, yet clear, clear water.
We stepped onto the stone walkway that led toward the village and were met by two men dressed in the most intriguing armour! It was only then that I realized just how tall Orajdi was. I, at the time, was probably four feet tall and Orajdi was easily twice that! The two men held long spears and had curved swords attached to their hips. Their leather armour hugged their muscular bodies and strands of green silk cascaded down from every joint in the armour. And like Orajdi’s, the brown armour was embroidered with all sorts of symbols I had never seen before!
The two men spoke an absolutely foreign language to Orajdi, one I would soon learn. I had heard Spanish and French in school, but this was nothing like that.
“Can I see your sword?” Michael asked one of the men.
“Dude!” I remember being so embarrassed.
“Oh child,” Orajdi smiled. “Give it time. Come.” She waved her long hand and gracefully stepped forward. It almost looked like she was floating.
We followed her and passed about a dozen more people, all uniquely dressed in either an awesome tunic, dress, or suit of armour. And all tall with long hair and pointy ears. Orajdi led us to a massive wooden table filled with the most elaborate spread of fruit. Three others were there: two men and one woman. Orajdi gestured for us to sit in the massive chairs.
Michael quickly took a juicy berry from a bowl and popped it in his mouth. His face turned pink with delight.
“These are they?” the other woman asked in a demeaning tone.
“This is him, at least. I wanted his companion to come along.” Orajdi replied.
My heart thumped. Me? Were they talking about me?
“Companion?” Michael asked with a voice crack, berry juice spilling down his chin. “I ain’t nobody’s companion.”
“Well then what are you?” a man asked.
“I… uh… I’m his bodyguard. Master of art and… his… forerunner!”
What did he just say? I thought to myself. The man scoffed and looked back at Orajdi.
The other man spoke up, “let’s get to it then,” he said.
“Child,” he looked at me. “Your name?”
“Ash,” Orajdi replied before I could.
“Ash. We have a great need for you. It is only in a dire time that we have come to you. There is a quest you must embark on for you have an ability that we do not. Will you help us?”
So many questions were racing through my head. What quest? What ability? Where is this? When do I go? And yet all I said was, “yes.”
“Oh boy,” Michael said.
“And you, forerunner, art master, bodyguard; Ash will need you to protect him as this is a very dangerous quest.”
“I like how you mention that after he’s agreed to do it,” Michael looked at me and gave me a thumbs up.
Just then, a big black bird soared overhead and called out loudly.
“It is nearing dusk,” Orajdi said as she stood. “You boys must return home before your parents wonder where you are.”
She whistled and within moments, a huge raven came and sat on a platform just outside of the building we were in. Michael and I climbed onto the ravens back and it flew us up, over the trees and back down, near the edge of the forest and our homes.
He and I left the forest laughing and talking as usual. It was like nothing had ever happened.
We went our separate ways. He probably went home to a warm hug and a cup of hot chocolate by a fire. And it’s not like I went home to anything worse, or at least, not from my perspective. When I got home the yelling had stopped and my dad scolded me for being out so late. I mean the sun was just setting but still I couldn’t help but understand where he was coming from.
Louis, my brother, on the other hand, had a different experience of that evening. He had stayed in the house and heard all the yelling and the doors slam. And when he finally surfaced from his room to get himself some food, our dad was sitting on the couch: cold drink in hand and watching the football game.
“Hey dad,” hey had said. But dad never said anything back. It was a little thing like that and there not being any milk left in the fridge to make cereal, that made Louis upset. He felt unloved and uncared for. And one could say he was right… we were only ten.
Everyone spent the night drowning in their sorrows. My stepmom was at her sister’s, dad fell asleep on the couch with the TV still on and my brother locked himself in his room, headphones in and tears running down his cheeks. Me? I laid in bed thinking about the best of days: that day. And the day that would be even better: tomorrow.
So when it finally came, Michael and I filled up on some bagels at his place and then ran out into the forest. Michael had seemed unenthused by Orajdi and the village by the river at first, but now, as we galloped through the forest, over the creek, along some downed trees and toward our fantastic land, he could not stop beaming about our quest.
“I did some research last night. I’m a swordmaster now. Watch!” He swung a stick through the air at a tree branch overhead. The leaves all fell and a large snapping sound bounced off nearby trunks. His stick fell to the ground in two.
“And so shall be our foes!” he yelled in triumph.
I just laughed and kept running toward the mountain range that couldn’t be seen from outside the forest. And it was at the base of those hidden mountains that I began my quest.