Christmas Quest

(This piece was originally written as a script for a five-part live reading, presented in “Readers Theater” style.  It has been reformatted here as a novella in five chapters.)

CHRISTMAS QUEST

By Paul Tate

 Chapter 1 · Facing the Chasm

The December night was a brisk one, the kind where a deep breath is hard to come by.  A sheet of snowflakes created a striking image in the moonlit sky above distant, white-capped mountains. In the foothills miles below, a young man sat alone in a dark prison cell, with no access to the stunning landscape.

Tyrian was an orphan. His only memory of his former life was of a vicious break-in, watching his mother struggle and die at the blade of marauders. The six-year-old boy was dragged away, and sold into slavery. His rebellious nature led to multiple scuffles with his owners, and before long Tyrian was labeled grudging and defiant, attributes that made him worthless on the slave trade. The boy was cast into jail, left to change his attitude or rot. The days in his cell began to blur into months, and over time, he was forgotten. Tyrian had no friends, no cellmates; an obese and bitter Prison Guard was his only contact to the outside world. Three times each day, the guard delivered a meager helping of gruel and bread, accompanied by sarcastic insults. “Hey dog! Here’s your feast!” followed by a bitter cackle, and the slam of the cell door.

Tyrian passed the days by pacing in his cell, partly for exercise, but more to hear the clanking chains of his shackles as they dragged across the stone floor between his feet. The metallic noises were a sort of music to his ears, one of only two diversions to occupy his mind. The orphan’s other pastime was devising games with five pebbles he’d gathered and polished to a shine by years of steady play. His favorite diversion was target practice, and he’d learned to throw them with pinpoint accuracy at spots on the rock walls. When not in use, Tyrian carefully stored the marbles in his shirt pocket.

This day, Tyrian was tossing pebbles one at a time, focused on the echoing clatter as they landed on the floor. After years of this activity, he knew the sound well. A loud tap followed by a sharp click, and the cascading click-click-click fading to silence. But today, the sound was oddly different. He’d throw the stone, and the click continued. Tap, CLICK, click-click-click. TAP! He quizzically threw another stone, and the tapping grew louder. He slowly realized that the tap wasn’t coming from his marbles, but from the outside wall of the prison. TAP! TAP! TAP! It was getting louder, and as he examined the source, Tyrian began to see mortar around a brick starting to crack. The tap was now a BANGING, and three large BANGS opened a hole in the wall, as a brick fell loudly to the floor by his toes. Tyrian was shocked, and backed quickly to the opposite wall.

“Greetings!” a voice called cheerfully. A pair of bright blue eyes stared in. “Come over, I need your help,” the voice bellowed. “What, m-me?” Tyrian stuttered. “Yes, if you’ll push on the wall in front of you while I pull, we can break out some bricks, and get you out of there.”

“Get me out?” the orphan asked. “Who are you? Why are you here? What’s going on?” The voice directed, “First things first. Start pushing. There’s a crack in the mortar up to the roofline, and I think it will go quickly with your help.”

The voice was convincing in its tone, so Tyrian began to push, straining to use dormant muscles. “That’s it. A little more!” A crack opened in the mortar, dashing around the bricks, inching outward as they pushed. Their efforts culminated in a loud crash, as cold air rushed in through the sudden opening; Tyrian tumbled forward, and somersaulted onto his back, landing with a thud. He dusted debris out of his face and squinted up; above him towered the smiling journeyman extending a hand. “You must be Tyrian. My name is Akker. I’m here to take you home.”

This Visitor was an impressive human; his hulking physique suggested a warrior’s bearing, but he beamed an easy smile. “Come on,” Akker grabbed the lad’s grip, swiftly standing him upright. “Surely, your Guard heard the ruckus, and will be here soon. Mind your chin. I’m gonna break your shackles.” Tyrian leaned back as Akker produced a sharp hatchet, and with a strike, split the rusty chains in two. “Let’s go. I hear footsteps.” He took off at a sprint and Tyrian followed suit.

They distanced themselves from the prison, covering a few hundred yards in a dash. At first, Tyrian did well, but now he began to sputter. His lungs burned, and his legs, still dragging the loose chains, began to feel like putty. Dizzy, he collapsed in the dirt. “Stop!”  he gasped. “Where are we going? What am I doing?” The guide waited patiently. “I guess I owe you an explanation.” He handed Tyrian a canteen. The orphan drank while Akker explained.

“Tyrian, as you know, many years ago, your mother was killed by bandits and you were whisked away into slavery. On that tragic day, your father, older brother and sister were away, working in the nearby town. Your family has been searching desperately for you, and it’s taken all these years to compile the clues to your whereabouts. It was only a few weeks ago, they learned you were imprisoned here. I was dispatched to guide you home.” Tyrian was confused. His childhood was so dim, a distant foggy shadow. He had no recollection of a father or siblings. He rubbed his eyes, hoping to shake a memory free. “I don’t remember,” he muttered.

Akker rested his hand on Tyrian’s shoulder. “I’m not surprised your mind has blocked things out. You witnessed terrible, terrible things. When you see your family, I’m sure it’ll come back to you. It won’t be long ‘til you’ll be together again.” he continued.

“You see, your family members have jobs in the court of the King, and they’re waiting for you in the Royal Homeland. My task is to guide you back in time for the Winter Solstice,” he said. “That’s the night when everyone gathers for the biggest Christmas party of the year — highlighted by a feast, music and games, and the best part of all — the Great Gift Exchange. It’s unlike any party you’ve ever seen.” The orphan thought to himself, “I’ve never seen any party,” and couldn’t relate to the scene Akker described. The guide buzzed with excitement as he spoke, but Tyrian found his mind drifting, skeptical that life could be so amazing.

Akker’s descriptions were interrupted by the sound of heavy feet shuffling toward them through the darkness. The gruff voice of the Prison Guard shouted from the shadows. “Get back here, dog! No one escapes on my watch!”

The two resumed their sprint, going only a hundred strides before Akker stopped abruptly.

“Workman’s Gorge,” he pointed at a large gap in the ground just ahead. Tyrian’s glance into the opening revealed a deep ravine below. The other side of the mountain pass was in view, but it was a good 15 feet away. Akker stepped back a few paces, and then hurled himself across, landing with a thud. He sprung to his feet and grinned back at Tyrian. “Easy. Just jump it,” he directed. “There’s no way the Guard can make that leap. Once you’re across, you’ll be free.”

Time seemed to stop. Tyrian felt his vision blur, as his heartbeat quickened. Doubts flooded his brain. He stared ahead at the guide’s outstretched hand. He thought, “What am I doing? I don’t know this man. He’s filling my head with stories of family members I don’t remember, he’s dragging me away to a place I can’t recall, challenging me to a leap that will surely kill me.”

The orphan found himself retreating, his heels drawn backward toward the prison camp. “Tyrian! Don’t be afraid,” Akker called. “The beginnings of your new life are just ahead.” Tyrian protested. “No. My cell is home. I’ve got my three meals a day, my games and exercises, and the music of my chains. I want to go back.” Akker shook his head, “The prison offers only loneliness, hunger and misery.”

Tyrian could barely process the choice before a whistling noise sizzled past his ear. An arrow landed with a sharp thunk in the tree just inches behind him. Another one followed seconds later. The clouds covering the moon parted, and Tyrian saw the guard pull a fresh arrow from his quiver. Akker shouted, “It’s now or never, Tyrian. Trust yourself. You’ll make it!” Tyrian was frozen, his feet cemented to the path. He saw the guard steadying his bow, drawing back the arrow into target. “Dog, take another step and I’ll split your skull,” the brute growled. “But if you come on back to the jail — nice and easy like — we’ll act like this never happened.” Tyrian swiveled his head back toward Akker. The other side of the mountain seemed a mile away.

 

Chapter 2 – On the Path

In Chapter 1 of Christmas Quest, we were introduced to Tyrian, a young slave whose childhood had been spent in a dank and dirty jail cell. Ripped from his family as a boy, Tyrian’s only contact to the outside world was a cruel prison guard, and memories of his long-lost family had faded over time. He occupied his mind with simple games played with marbles, and wiled away the lonely hours in his cell listening to the clanking music of his ankle chains.

One day a mysterious traveler named Akker arrived and broke Tyrian out of jail. The warrior inspired Tyrian with stories of a distant Royal Homeland, where his father, sister, and brother waited, yearning to be reunited with him. If they could survive the journey on a treacherous path ahead, Tyrian could experience the world’s most wondrous Christmas Celebration, complete with food, games, and a grand gift exchange. Their escape was a dramatic one, with the prison guard hot on their heels.

Tyrian faced a decision at the precipice of a chasm, where a dangerous leap could propel him on to a new life of freedom, or down into a ravine. The prospect of falling to his death made going back to jail seem like a decent option, and a gruff voice offered one last chance to repent. “Come on back with me now, and we’ll act like this never happened,” the Guard shouted, aiming a bow and arrow at Tyrian’s head. Akker’s calm directive, echoing from the other side of the mountain, encouraged him. “Tyrian, trust me. You can make this jump.”

The few seconds of decision passed in slow motion. A noise in the distance distracted the Guard for a moment, and Tyrian instinctively leapt –vaulting himself with every ounce of his depleting energy. His lunge was just enough, and he landed on the opposite side with a painful crunch. A vicious expletive escaped from the Guard’s mouth, followed by the zing of the arrow, just missing Tyrian. Akker helped him up, and the duo scrambled back on to the path. As they ran, the guard’s voice trailed off in the night, “You’re too weak, Dog! You’ll never survive out there!”

They ran and ran, up and down a hilly road, until Tyrian could go no further. He looked back to chart their progress, and the prison was now represented by a small dot of light in the valley behind them. Akker opened a satchel and produced a warm cloak for Tyrian, along with a canteen and a bite of dried meat. “Rest for a bit,” he instructed with a smile. “So how does it feel?” Tyrian paused and replied. “Chewy…?”

“No,” Akker chuckled. “I’m talking about freedom. How does it feel to be free?” Tyrian stopped chewing. “Oh. Free? I don’t know. Right now, all my muscles are aching from running; my stomach is somehow both hungry and nauseous; and the rest of me is either cold or bleeding or both,” he said, pointing to the chains on his bony ankles, now trickling blood. “And … to be honest … I’m also pretty scared.”

Akker nodded. “Well, I’m feeling a lot of those same things, and I can’t blame you for being afraid. What we’re doing isn’t easy,” he said. “The path to the Royal Homeland is dangerous, and I won’t lie. There’s a chance we won’t make it. But if we do, I promise it will be more than worth it. All the things that you’re feeling right now –hungry, sick, hurting, afraid –all of it will vanish when you walk into that magnificent ballroom and get your first look at everything laid out for the Christmas Celebration.”

Akker described in vivid detail the festival atmosphere, the beautiful party scene, and the family reunion that awaited him. “Hundreds of people are there, playing games, talking, laughing and singing, There are brightly lit candles, gold streamers, banners, garlands, sparkling ornaments and displays –magnificent decorations everywhere –towering Christmas trees glowing with light and color, it’s more than the eye can take in. And you won’t believe the buffet table. Braised beef, stuffed chicken, roasted potatoes, bread, cakes and pies, the most amazing dinner spread in the world. And best of all… it’s all you can eat!” Tyrian’s mind wandered in the images of decorations, food and fun, until a loud growl from his stomach interrupted them. “Well, I guess that’s our cue,” Akker said. “We can’t wait ‘til the celebration to eat; we’ve got to settle for something a little less regal. Just over this hill, there’s a bog where we can get some oysters and mussels. Come on.”

They climbed down a short hill and found an icy bog, fed by a partially frozen stream. “You’ve got to dig a little, but just under the surface are dozens of oysters,” he demonstrated the technique, prying up a handful of shells from the mud. “Just be careful, the edge of the bank can be slippery…” The words had barely exited Akker’s lips when Tyrian stepped on a slick rock, and plunged clumsily into the freezing waters. He panicked, thrashing around and screaming. “Help! I’m drowning!” His yelps woke up a variety of creatures in the swamp. Snapping turtles and water snakes began to swarm toward him.

“Tyrian!” Akker shouted over the yelping. “Stay calm.” Tyrian continued to thrash. “If you’ll stop yelling, I can explain. The water is only four feet deep. Nothing bad will happen to you if you just stand up. Well, I mean, nothing bad will happen until the alligators wake up…” Tyrian immediately stopped, stood up and darted quickly out of the bog.

Akker gathered a bag full of shells and the pair hiked ahead to a high hill, making camp in the clearing of a wooded area. Akker started a small fire, and Tyrian huddled near the flames, shivering, still damp from his swim. Akker cooked up the mussels and oysters and as they ate, the Guide gently challenged his protégé. “The path we’re walking is risky and dangerous. But if you’ll listen, trust me and follow my advice, we can make it to the Homeland alive. Steady focus on our goal ahead is the key.” As they ate and chatted, Akker found a pearl in one of the oysters. He tossed it to Tyrian. “Here. Keep this in a safe place. It would make a great gift for your sister.” Tyrian had never seen anything as beautiful as the tiny shining sphere.

Before leaving to gather more firewood, Akker reminded Tyrian to keep an eye out. “Try to stay awake until I get back. Bandits are known to hang out in those woods, and they would love to add your keepsakes to their stash,” he warned. “Be vigilant. And hide that pearl!”

As Akker departed, Tyrian pushed in closer to the fire and stoked the orange embers with a stick. His belly was full and he was getting sleepy. He thought, “I’ll play a game to stay awake.” He grew restless waiting for Akker. His game started simply, with a few leaves and pebbles, but before long Tyrian had forgotten his friend’s warnings, and had devised an elaborate activity now including his precious pebbles and the pearl. He was so enjoying the fun and admiring the reflections in the firelight that he failed to notice a pair of beady, bloodshot eyes peering at him from the brush.

Suddenly, Tyrian heard rushing footsteps, and was able to gather up his stones and the pearl, just before the thief’s punch clubbed his ear. He stumbled, but kept a tight grip on the treasures. “Give me that pearl,” the robber sneered, while prying at Tyrian’s hand. They wrestled back and forth as the thief grabbed and Tyrian defended.

Tyrian was just bigger than his foe, and was able to fend off the assaults.  The hefty push tossed Tyrian to the ground, and the bandit unsheathed a dagger from his belt. He slashed at Tyrian’s cheek from above, barely missing. “Don’t make me cut you. Just give me that pearl!” As the robber lifted his arm to lunge again, Tyrian rolled away, and scurried over to the edge of a nearby cliff, devising a quick plan.

The thief scrambled forward, arm outstretched with the blade aimed for his opponent’s chest. Tyrian threw the marbles at the feet of the robber, who slipped and fell, his momentum sending him tumbling over the mountain side. Tyrian looked over his shoulder as the bandit dropped quickly out of view, a distant thud confirming his demise in the ravine below. He stood motionless for a long minute, then suddenly realizing the need to breathe. Tyrian took a deep breath and noticed his hands were shaking. He calmed himself, stooped and gathered the marbles, which had scattered around on the ground. In the dark he then noticed a gleam of light. It was the thief’s jeweled dagger, resting on a rock by the cliff’s edge. He reached down and claimed it, just as Akker came back into the clearing carrying a stack of firewood. Tyrian rushed over. “You won’t believe what just happened!” he said.

He recounted details of the mugging to Akker, being careful to leave out the part where he failed to heed his mentor’s warnings. “Well, I’m glad you’re okay,” Akker said. “It’s good to know you can take care of yourself in a pinch. But you were lucky it was only one attacker. I’ll keep watch.  You better get some sleep. We’ve got a long hike tomorrow.”

Tyrian settled in for a nap and carefully tucked the knife in his belt before shutting his eyes. “I can give this dagger to my brother,” he thought. He tried to imagine the scene of the great gift exchange and the look on the faces of his long-lost siblings. Their smiles were just coming into focus, when he nodded off and quickly slipped into a deep sleep.

 

Chapter 3 – The Shaman’s Nest

The chilly winter breeze nudged Tyrian from the best night’s sleep he’d ever had. He woke to see Akker, preparing a simple breakfast of oatmeal and carrots. “Eat up. We’ll need to cover a lot of ground today.”

As he ate, Tyrian looked down at his bruised and bloody ankles. The cuffs of his shackles still dangled there, along with the broken chains. His sandals were tattered; the thought of hiking in them was a grim notion. Akker sensed his concern. “We’re just a few miles from a town called Haedesh; we’ll get you some shoes there at the traders market.” “Sounds good, but these shackles,” he said sadly. “I think they’re here for keeps.” Akker countered. “When we get to the Royal Homeland, the King has a master key that can unlock anything.  He’ll get rid of those cuffs once and for all.”

Tyrian thought about the huge party they were traveling toward. “Akker,” he asked. “This Christmas Celebration –I don’t think I’m going to belong there; I’m dirty and my clothes are torn. I’ve never been to school; I don’t know what to say. I’m sure I’ll do something to embarrass my family in front of the king.” The guide assured him. “Trust me. The King is going to like you just the way you are.” Akker clapped him on the back, and the pair returned to their hike.

As they walked, Tyrian urged Akker to once again describe the lush scenes of the Celebration and images of the Royal Homeland. The descriptions made the miles pass quickly, and Tyrian grew energized and talkative. He again recounted the previous night’s thwarted attack. “You should’ve seen me, Akker. He lunged at me with that dagger,” Tyrian pantomimed his countermoves. “But I uppercut him with a right to the jaw, and then kicked his feet out!” Akker listened patiently as the teen punched the air. “The whole time we were fighting I was guiding him to the edge of the cliff.” When he finally paused, Akker

warned: “I’m proud of the way you defended yourself, but you must remain vigilant and stay humble. This world is filled with dangerous opponents, who would love to tempt you away from your quest.” The words lingered there, until the duo rounded a corner, revealing a valley of huts and tents. “This is Haedesh.”

Haedesh was just a back-country dent in the road, but appeared as a metropolis to Tyrian’s innocent eyes. They pushed through the open-air marketplace toward the shoe shop, past row after row of tents and vendors. Tyrian was enchanted by the flood to his senses.

An exotic voice called out. “All hail. We have a gallant young newcomer and his conveyor, begetting an air of auspicious fortune. Welcome to the Shaman’s Nest.”

A tall man with regal posture glided into their path. He delicately nudged them through the flap of a large red tent, brightly lit with dozens of towering candle stands. He clapped his hands with authority, and charming assistants appeared with snacks and drinks. He cooed, “Refreshments, compliments of the house. My name is Skalabar.”

The merchant was dressed impeccably in a burgundy robe. Jeweled brass wristbands were matched to a crown atop his head, contrasted by a cascade of black braids that seamlessly segued from ears to beard. “At the Shaman’s Nest,” he explained. “Entertainment is our venture. We barter for your time and exchange pride for prize.” Akker confirmed under his breath: “It’s a casino…”

Somehow, the host was now holding Tyrian’s polished stones. “Beautiful trinkets, my boy,” he complimented. “I noticed when we met that you were admiring my wristbands. They’re made of imported brass, bejeweled with emeralds from the Eastern Realm,” he waved them in front of Tyrian’s nose.

“I think a game is in order, a triune challenge of guile, will, and skill –made all the more dramatic with a genial wager. You seem to be blessed with the only things required of you — beneficence, readiness and willingness. Shall we?” Akker reached to intercept his friend, but Tyrian blurted out, “Absolutely, I love games,” his eyes locked happily on Skalabar.

“As quick as a coal is reduced to an ash, we’ll engage in a verse that can change in a flash!”  Fingers snapped; a spark of light; suddenly a glass tray appeared in Skalabar’s hand.  “Should you crack the code of the tale to be told, these spoils of brass will be yours to behold.”

He touched each bracelet with a flourish. An assistant banged a small cymbal; candles were snuffed, dousing the ambiance to a shadowy purple. The dealer spoke fluidly, words cascading like a song.

“I can sizzle like bacon; I am made with an egg; I have plenty of backbone, but lack a good leg. I peel layers like onions, but still remain whole. I have length like a flagpole, yet fit in a hole.  The quiz is your challenge, a prize is your gain, tell me the answer these bands you’ll attain.”

As he voiced the poem, small wooden blocks, etched with the images described in the story, magically appeared on the tray as if from nowhere; a mere wave of his hand seemed to bewitch the cubes; they tumbled and changed. As he spoke, Skalabar’s dizzying sleight of hand confused Tyrian. The teen answered, “Are you …. b-b-breakfast?” “‘Tis a clever guess, but alas…” He repeated the quiz. ‘I can sizzle like bacon; I am made with an egg; I have plenty of backbone, but lack a good leg. I peel layers like onions, but still remain whole. I have length like a flagpole, yet fit in a hole.’ The answer is a snake.

Suddenly, the cubes were gone, and a small yellow snake slithered around on the tray. Tyrian stepped back, startled. The magician placed the marbles in the pocket of his robe. Tyrian protested, but Skalabar purred, “‘Tis but one world, and this is it; one must gain the most toys before you quit. I promised a triune quiz –part one has run, but parts two and three have just begun,” he effortlessly slid the dagger from Tyrian’s belt. “Behold a knife, the brand of a warrior’s trade — just the thing to assert for this game to be played.”

Tyrian looked at Akker, who crossed his arms and shrugged as if to say, “You got yourself into this mess.”  The dazzling sorcerer touched a silver goblet, and it filled magically with a ruby liquid. “A poor man seeks silver, the rich thirst for love. The wise yearn to soar, with wings of a dove.”

The wine vanished, and in its place a white bird hatched from the cup, and flew up onto Skalabar’s shoulder. “A sip of water makes me full, and I leave when it’s cold; I crave minerals but have no desire for gold.” The cup now overflowed with clear liquid and changed to ice at the tap of the wizard’s wand. “My suit is of brown but my hat is of green; I have not a finger, but own many rings.” He spun in a swift 360 and his robe became a brown cloak, his crown replaced with a green felt beret. The tray showed dozens of shining gold rings, stacked in a heap.

Tyrian felt sweat emerge on his brow. “Uh, uh. Are you … a salesman?” Skalabar shook his head. “Clever, but alas, not correct. The answer is … a tree.” “A sip of water makes me full, and I leave when it’s cold; I crave minerals but have no desire for gold. My suit is of grey but my hat is of green; I have not a finger, but own many rings.” The magician turned round again, and returned in his robe and crown.

“What shall you wager for this next stage? A pearl I see, ‘tis worth a king’s wage.” The pickpocket now had Tyrian’s pearl in two delicate fingers. Akker quickly pulled Tyrian back to a corner.

“If you haven’t figured it out, it’s a con,” he explained. “Skalabar’s game is to mislead you with visual trickery, so you’re too distracted to think. This time, just close your eyes when he recites the rhyme. It’s only when you’re blind that you can truly see. See with your ears and heart, not your eyes.”

Tyrian stepped back up to Skalabar. “Okay, let me get this straight. We go one more round, and if I win, I get back my marbles, my dagger, and your bracelets, the robe, and the crown?” “Correct,” the performer confirmed. “But if you lose, all your keepsakes are mine, including the pearl.” Tyrian clenched his teeth and nodded.

This time, Skalabar’s tricks were more spectacular than ever –smoke clouds billowed at their feet, the candles flickered and spat, flower petals floated down from above like snowflakes. The challenge rolled off the trickster’s tongue:

You can have me but cannot hold me; You can gain me but quickly lose me. If treated with care I can truly be great, But if betrayed I will sorely break.

Akker looked over at his young friend, whose eyes were tightly shut. Tyrian’s lips moved silently in thought, repeating the poem to himself.

You can have me but cannot hold me; You can gain me but quickly lose me. If treated with care I can truly be great, But if betrayed I will sorely break.

He popped open his eyes and with a huge grin exclaimed, “Trust! The answer is trust!”

The magician’s jaw dropped; he’d never lost a wager. Tyrian reached up and snatched the crown. “I’ll take that,” the teen said decidedly. Akker de-robed the shaman, who remained motionless, now dumbfounded and wearing just a pair of dingy long-johns. “And these are mine too, I believe,” Tyrian said, reclaiming his keepsakes.

The duo emerged from the tent into bright sunlight. Akker was tempted to lecture, but instead burst into a laugh. Ahead of him on the path he saw the scrawny teen strutting with royal confidence, now wearing an ill-fitting purple robe, brass bracelets, and the oversized crown of a once-magical monarch.

Akker watched his pal for a few seconds; then jogged up to join him. “Come on, kid,” he said. “Let’s trade that silly robe for a new pair of shoes.” They went into the cobbler’s shop and did just that, knowing that the long hike to the Royal Homeland still remained ahead.

 

Chapter 4 – Entering the Thicket

From the distance, a coyote’s howl interrupted the rhythmic crunch of boots marching in ankle-deep snow. Tyrian and Akker’s conversation had stopped a while back as they now devoted themselves to basic breathing. The stroll had turned into a difficult, uphill hike, and the last two days had been spent climbing up the mountain. Snow fell in waves now, and the wind was bitter. The adrenaline from Tyrian’s victory over the Shaman had long worn off, and he was again wondering if the trip to the Homeland was worth it. He asked Akker. “How much further? I need to take a break.” His friend encouraged: “Probably another half-hour til we reach the peak; then we’ll hit a cave where we can camp. You’re doing great. Most folks would’ve collapsed a long time ago.” Tyrian responded, “You mean that was an option?”

The cave wasn’t particularly warm, but Tyrian was grateful they weren’t hiking anymore. He was also thankful for his new boots, and reflected on the progress he’d made in them. “How many miles to the Royal Homeland?” he asked. “Are we gonna make it in time for the Celebration?” Akker gazed out from the cave and grimly said, “The blizzard cost us a lot of time.” He seemed distracted as he tossed a blanket toward Tyrian. The guide prepped his bunk and offered a courteous goodnight as he turned in for the night. Tyrian followed suit, and soon drifted off.

After a fitful night’s sleep, Tyrian woke to find Akker marking a route on a map. “I’m afraid I have some bad news,” the guide spoke softly. “When we make it down to the foot of the mountain, I’ll have to leave you. I’ve got to deliver the food we bought in Haedesh to an orphanage in the valley. I’d wanted to do that and take you the rest of the way, but we’re way behind due to the blizzard.”

“But … I don’t know the way,” he stammered. “Can I come with you?” Akker shook his head. “No, Tyrian, you have to push on to the Homeland. Your family isn’t sure if you’re alive or dead; they’re eager to see you. Plus, I can’t let you miss the Celebration.” The guide smiled and reminded him of the holiday festivities awaiting him. “You can make it. This will help.” Akker gave him the map, showing colorful sketches of the path and landmarks.

As they set off downhill, Akker carefully described the road ahead and gave Tyrian pointers on how to avoid its hazards. Their chatter was lively and upbeat, as they were traveling much faster this day; the weather was still cold but clear.

Akker pointed to a green triangle on the map. “This tree is your most important landmark. It’s the King’s Evergreen. When you see it you’ll know you’re at the entrance to the Royal Homeland.” Tyrian protested, “How will I know it’s the right tree? We’re traveling through a forest; all I’ve seen for the last few days are trees.” Akker chuckled. “You’ll know this tree. It stands 200 feet tall and when you see it, you won’t want to take your eyes off it. It’s the most amazing tree in the world!”

Akker’s smile left as his finger moved to highlight a dark mass of lines that blocked the path to the tree. “Tyrian, this is … The Thicket.” He spoke solemnly as he described a jungle of weeds, thorns and briars, made treacherous by vipers and venomous insects. “The key to navigating safely through The Thicket is this map; if you follow it and pay close attention to the twists and turns as they’re drawn here, you can hike through to the other side. It’s a curving maze of a route, with traps and pitfalls designed to knock you from the path. You should ignore the shortcuts, as tempting as they might be. Stick to the map. If you’re in danger, trust your training. Everything you’ve encountered up to this point is experience you can lean on.”

Akker deliberately shifted the conversation back to happier subjects, and it wasn’t long before he was again enthusing about Christmas. “Well, I was gonna wait for the great gift exchange, but I don’t know that I’ll be back in time,” he said, reaching into his satchel. He presented Tyrian with a small metal cube. “This is a tinder box,” he said. “It contains some flint, steel and wood shavings. You never know when you’ll need to start a fire.” Tyrian thanked him and admired the brass container. Akker explained how the device worked, and about the time he was done, the path opened into a clearing. A fork in the road loomed ahead. They both immediately knew what this meant.

Akker divided up their provisions, and gave Tyrian a few final reminders. He shook the teen’s hand firmly and dispatched him with a warm blessing: “Confidence, peace, and faith.”

Akker hiked away. Tyrian gulped at the prospect of going alone. He jogged ahead quickly, and repeated the mantra: “Confidence, peace, and faith.”

Tyrian had traveled nearly five miles when a patch of ominous clouds moved in overhead, casting a pall over the path. A wind wafted in toward the hiker, and the sinister smell of sulfur drifted in atop a boil of fog. The butterflies in his stomach were signaling that The Thicket was around the next bend.

The terrain changed from wooded countryside to a grey and eerie tangle of enormous barbed weeds and intertwined bushes. The blackened underbrush was thick and deformed; large, sharp spikes encroached on the overgrown path. Tyrian read the map and walked cautiously.

Sickly symptoms began to set in as he moved forward. Despite the freezing temperatures, he felt clammy; the back of his neck was wet from sweat. The sulfurous stench induced a bout of vertigo, and the ensuing dizziness brought The Thicket to life. Gnarled tree limbs seemed to lunge at his eyes. Thorns seized his shirt. Horrible giant bugs poured out of dead logs and scurried by in droves. Branches creaked overhead, and the distant snarls of wild beasts created a most unnerving soundtrack. Snakes rattled quickly past his feet.

Fear was beginning to overtake the traveler as he staggered down the next alley. His eyelids filled with liquid, and he struggled to see past the tears to orient himself on the map. In the distance, Tyrian noticed a pinprick of light and a blob of greenery. “That must be the King’s evergreen!” He ignored the map’s directives and raced ahead. He climbed over a mass of rotten limbs and found what seemed to be a forward path opening in the brush. He heaved himself clumsily through The Thicket, desperately chasing the mirage of light. His foot caught on a log, and he tripped awkwardly. It was a trap. He was flung headlong into a deep, dark pit encrusted with thick vines.

In a moment Tyrian was tangled horribly; long tentacles of the plants encased the teen’s torso. The teen thrashed uncontrollably as the thorns and briers cut into his flesh. The more he flailed his arms and legs, the tighter the vines clinched. Oxygen was scarce in the dark tunnel of plants; he gasped, desperate to breathe. He spun and tossed, and felt a surge of panic welling up. The blackness of the pit was absolute; he couldn’t see a thing. Fear overtook him, and a frenzied sequence of nightmarish faces sprang to mind –the prison guard, the bandit, and the wizard mocked with familiar insults. “You’ll never make it out alive! Give me that pearl! If betrayed I will surely break!”

Trust! The word trust suddenly materialized over the taunts. “You’ve got to trust!” The villainous phrases retreated, replaced by Akker’s confident advice. “Don’t panic. Relax. You’ve been trained for this very moment. Confidence, peace, and faith.”

Tyrian stopped thrashing. The pit was dark as night, but he closed his eyes anyway, slowing his pulse, fortifying his will. Tyrian lowered his head, and relaxed his arms and legs. Despite the blindness, he successfully untangled himself from the vines. He mustered his strength and stood up. He recalled the Christmas gift from Akker, and took the tinder box from his pocket. He sparked the flint and fashioned a torch out of a nearby branch. Light flooded the area, and he quickly found a route, climbing up and out of the ditch.

Morale restored, Tyrian followed the map. He avoided the tempting shortcuts and made his way more deliberately through The Thicket. After a few hours, a sweet breeze drifted its way through the weeds. The unmistakable scent of evergreen drew him forward. He looked through the growth and confirmed a sunlit exit just ahead.

He emerged from The Thicket, and just as Akker said, Tyrian spied the most beautiful tree he’d ever seen. The enormous green tower was full and vital;its needles sparkled with drops of dew. Its grandeur was clear, but the tree’s most remarkable feature was its produce. The limbs dipped from the weight of the most amazing variety of ripe, colorful fruit. Oranges, plums, apples, pears, limes, figs, lemons, cherries! Every conceivable color, type and kind was represented in a sensational array of options. Tyrian slowly circled the base of the great evergreen and gazed in awe. He felt a warm sense of belonging and arrival. His cheeks were warm with joy, and a smile dashed from ear to ear. He reached forward to select a ripe peach from the tree, when a warm voice cheerfully called out.  “Hello. Welcome to the Royal Homeland!”

 

Chapter 5 – Celebration of a Lifetime

“Hello. Welcome to the Royal Homeland.” Tyrian couldn’t tell where the mysterious voice was coming from. “Uh, hi,” he said. “Who’s there?” “Up here!” the voice called. Tyrian looked up about 30 feet into the limbs of the tree and saw a man hanging there, waving. He had a canvas bag slung around his neck, filled to the brim with picked fruit. He nimbly swung down from the limb and bounced down with a soft thud in front of Tyrian.

“Wow, you sure are a sight!” the man looked concerned as he stepped toward the teen. “By the looks of all these cuts and scrapes, you’ve been traveling through The Thicket.” “Yes sir,” Tyrian explained. “I didn’t know if I was gonna make it here alive. I’ve been traveling for the longest time, trying to get to the Royal Homeland for the Christmas Celebration.”

As he exhaled the last sentence, a wave of exhaustion overtook him, and Tyrian collapsed to one knee. The man offered a ripe plum. “Eat this. It’ll help.” Tyrian quickly ate it, and noticed a new vigor coursing through his system. He stood up to shake the stranger’s hand. “My name is Sargon, but most folks just call me The Harvester. And, let me guess: your name is … Tyrian.”

Tyrian was surprised. “Uh, well, yes –” Sargon continued, “And I bet you’ve been traveling with a tough guy named Akker.” “Yes, I have, but…?” He laughed. “Akker is my brother. We’ve been expecting you. I’m so glad you survived the trip. There are some people just over that hill who’ll also be thrilled to know you made it.”

The Harvester steered him up a small slope toward an overlook. Tyrian’s eyes widened as he saw a large open gate, bracketing a road paved with smooth stones. The avenue pointed toward a sparkling collective of homes and buildings; the structures were accented with artistic hedgerows, meticulous flower beds, and colorful Christmas banners. Stunning as they were, these structures paled in comparison to the majestic castle that sat in the city square. “This has got to be a dream,” he whispered toward Sargon. “It’s real,” The Harvester smiled. “But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Come on!”

As they entered the city, Tyrian and Sargon were met by friendly townspeople scurrying from task to task, clearly preparing for the big party. Everyone knew Sargon and greeted him warmly. Many even knew Tyrian by name, which became less and less shocking with each interaction.

They were almost at the castle bridge when Sargon stopped them at a small store with a changing room. He handed a bag to Tyrian. “Ithought you might like a change of clothes.” The teen ducked into the walk-in, donned the new outfit, and saw his reflection in a mirror. He expected the image of a shy young boy, but instead was shocked to see a lean and confident man. The clothes were tailored perfectly to his frame, and he couldn’t help but smile with disbelief. He emerged to see Sargon waving at someone off in the distance.

A hundred yards away, a runner was sprinting their way. His features were shadowed by the towering castle, but Tyrian saw a toothy grin plastered on the young man’s face. He was whooping as he approached. The figure closed in on them in a blur, and Tyrian felt himself enveloped in the crunch of a joyful bear hug. The jostling was accompanied by rolls of laughter. Another figure dashed into the scene; a young woman with long brown hair threw herself into the dogpile. She screamed merrily, “Tyrian! Tyrian! It’s you, it’s you!”

The two hugged him relentlessly, tears flowing down their cheeks. Tyrian stared at their faces. Like a bolt, his long-forgotten brother and sister came into focus. “Thad! Lorena!” He returned their hugs, gleefully collecting them in his arms.

The trio chatted warmly, until the clanging of a distant bell rang out six chimes. Sargon nudged them back toward the gate. “It’s almost time for the party.” They’d taken only a few steps when it dawned on Tyrian that their reunion was lacking a member. “Where’s my father?” The Harvester replied, “He’s working at the castle, making final preparations for the King’s party…” Lorena interjected. “…But he can’t wait to see you!”

To this point, Tyrian thought he’d seen his share of remarkable sights. But when the doors to the castle swung open, his jaw dropped to his chest. None of Akker’s descriptions or the wildest dreams of his imagination could have prepared the newcomer for the images of the Christmas Celebration. Red, green, and gold were everywhere. A kaleidoscope of light streamed in through stained-glass windows. The beams of sun created speckled stars and diamond shapes that danced in the air. The room was enchanted with all forms of fantastic decorations –ribbons, lanterns, bows, candles, flowers, fountains, paintings, sculptures -everywhere he turned he saw a more beautiful scene than before. Laughter, singing, and lively music tickled his ears; the aroma of gourmet food warmed his nose; the huge

ballroom was full of people dancing, playing games or huddling together in happy conversations. As they passed through the crowd, Tyrian examined each group, hoping to pick out his father.

“This way,” Sargon gestured. “I think I know where he is.” The foursome excused themselves through the throng of partygoers, crossed to the end of the ballroom, and stopped at a simple door. Sargon opened it for Tyrian. “He’s up in the tower, repairing the King’s clock.” He sent the teen alone up the steps.

Tyrian was nervous as he climbed the staircase and contemplated the reunion. He wracked his brain for a picture of the man, but it remained blank. A ticking sound grew gradually louder as he ascended, confirming he was approaching the summit of the clock tower. A final step left him at a closed door labeled CLOCK. He gingerly turned the knob.

Tyrian saw the back of a sturdy, greying repairman in rolled-up sleeves atop a ladder, addressing the sprockets of a large timepiece with a screwdriver. Tyrian waited below while the man made a final adjustment; he finished and dusted his hands with a clap, hopping quickly off the ladder. “That ought to do it,” he said brightly, turning toward his guest. His arms flung forward, and the worker gathered in his son with a strong hug.

Instantly, Tyrian recognized the friendly arms of his dad. He tried to speak, but couldn’t choke out a word. He just rested there for a long minute as the embrace bridged a decade of separation.

Eventually, the warm voice of his father simply said, “I’ve missed you so much.” He stood Tyrian back in front of him and admired the young man before him. “Look at you, Tyrian. You’re all grown up.” Tyrian blurted out a few simple thoughts about the castle and his journey, but lacked the words to sum up his feelings. They talked amiably while descending the stairs, but as the door opened, the din of the party overwhelmed their chat. Lorena and Thad swarmed them enthusiastically, and the group was whisked into the center of the festivities.

The next hour was a blur, as Tyrian feasted on delicacies and drank his weight in cider. Thad and Lorena introduced Tyrian to their friends, and the group invited him into some rollicking games, including a marbles competition. He naturally won the contest, putting to use his finely honed skills, and capturing a trophy for the effort. In the hub-bub, Tyrian lost sight of his father who had slipped away, likely assigned to a repair task or clean-up duty somewhere in the castle.

Tyrian and Thad were getting second helpings at the buffet table when a bell rang. “It’s time for the Great Gift Exchange,” Thad said, rushing Tyrian with the rest of the crowd toward the center of the room. All eyes were on a high platform, where a large regal throne sat empty. Thad helped them squeeze past the crowd, and they joined Lorena down toward the front.

For thirty minutes, people mingled with each other exchanging presents, some running across the ballroom to greet a friend or relative. Lorena and Thad were distracted at times, and left Tyrian to visit friends. Sargon stayed with him and introduced him to many new faces, some of whom even had gifts for him. Soon the siblings had returned, and they each offered up a memorable gift. Lorena presented him an embroidered leather satchel that she sewed herself. Thad gave his brother a hand-made gift as well –a paddle carved from a birch limb. “When the weather warms up we can go canoeing on the river. It’s the best!”

When Tyrian presented the pearl to Lorena, he described the battle of wits with Skalabar in which he nearly lost it. She started to cry when she saw it, but Thad stomped on the moment, soliciting for his gift. Tyrian handed him the dagger, and the older brother got serious, looking him in the eye with a sincere thank you. Tyrian showed them Akker’s tinderbox, and for a moment he worried about his friend’s safety. His concern was interrupted by a trumpet blast, which silenced the crowd.

An entourage of officials marched ceremoniously across the chamber, followed by a nobleman, smiling and greeting the crowd with generous handshakes, waves, and hugs & kisses for the young ones. Tyrian struggled to get a clear view of the monarch as he strolled through his fans. Aides parted the cheering crowd and cleared a path as the King ascended to the platform. With regal grace, he lifted an open hand and a hush fell. “Welcome, my friends, to our annual Christmas Celebration,” he said. “This event is always my favorite gathering of the year, as it best represents the values that the Royal Homeland strives to perpetuate: joy, generosity, and family. Today’s party is an especially momentous one: As many of you know, one family in our kingdom was blessed today when they were reunited with a long-lost kidnapped son.”

Suddenly, Tyrian felt strong hands clutch his elbows and heave him forward. Guards were lifting him to the stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, I present Tyrian, safely returned to the Royal Homeland.” Sargon the Harvester jogged up the steps and slid in beside him announcing to the crowd, “Tyrian has traveled a long way to be with us, enduring the most dangerous of challenges. He fought a bandit, climbed a mountain in a blizzard, defeated the wizard Skalabar, and escaped the treacherous maze of The Thicket.” The partygoers murmured with admiration. “He deserves to be honored as a man of great achievement.” The crowd burst into applause. “He has been reunited with his family, and presented them with hard-won gifts.” Sargon whispered. “Take out the gift for your father.” Tyrian did so, and scanned the crowd, hoping to pick out the repairman in the sea of faces. Instead, everyone shifted their attention over his shoulder, as Tyrian slowly realized aloud, “My father is … the King?” He looked to his right and saw the repairman, clad in a dazzling cloak and jeweled crown.

A hush fell over the crowd, as the King produced a gold key. He moved over to Tyrian and knelt down to his son’s feet. He carefully unlocked the rusty locks and gently removed the shackles from his ankles. Tyrian dropped his eyes to the dingy brass crown that he’d won from Skalabar. As he stood up, Tyrian squeaked out a shy thank you and meekly held out the tattered headband. “I was going to give you this, but … I think you already have one.”

The King smiled and lovingly took the crown from his son’s fingers. “Yes, you’re right about that. I already have a crown…” He polished the crown with the cuff of his robe. The simple act transformed it into a regal, reflective treasure. “… but, Tyrian, you don’t have one.” The King placed the crown on his son’s head; it now fit perfectly. He punctuated the moment with a declaration, “Home at last is my son, heir to the Royal Homeland!” The crowd erupted and the orchestra launched into a fanfare.

A wave of love washed over Tyrian, as arms swept him into the air, triumphantly skyward above the crowd of supporters. He looked down to see who was carrying him and recognized the familiar face of Akker. “Enjoy it. This is your moment,” the beaming guard shouted. “But get your rest tonight. I’ve got to go break another orphan out of prison, and I could use your help!”

Tyrian threw his head back and laughed, relishing the prospect of another great and unexpected family reunion.

 

The End.