The Pioneers

The Harrowing

Our final task as children, our first adventure as adults

1st day of the first month of the New Year
Grunthal, Runmoor

We set off on our Harrowing as the day turned into night on the first day of the New Year, the traditional time for the rite of passage, as the Elders call it. It was quite emotional – I’ve heard the Harrowing is as dangerous as it is mysterious. But we were fed well before we left – tomato and vegetable stew with brown rice and glazed chicken, with orange peel and mint tea to follow. Delicious! Our families came to see us off. There were only three of us making the journey this year – me, Stefan and Val. Elder Oleg and Guardian Evelyn checked our equipment and asked if we were ready. It was probably just to scare us, but they were taking it all very seriously, like we could actually die out there. It is an important thing to do, though – not only does it mean that when we get back, we’ll be adults, but we’ll also be allowed to choose whether we stay in Grunthal for the rest of our lives or whether we go off to see the world. I want to see the world, and I know Val wants to see the buildings in the great cities, but I don’t know if Stefan will want to leave. He was looking a bit green around the gills before we set out. I’m not sure if all this adventuring is for him. But Guardian Evelyn always said not to judge a warrior by their trembling hands! She’s from the west originally, so she knows all about travelling and adventures.
We were given some basic survival supplies, since the journey would take most of the night, and then we’d be out in the Mourningwood, in bits of it I don’t know very well. It was great, though, because the whole village had a big toast ‘To those who have gone and those who have returned’, of honey mead! It’s the first time ever that I’ve had honey mead, since it’s usually reserved for the adults. It was strong and tasty but it made me a bit light-headed. Guardian Evelyn gave us a blessing of the Warden and our families said goodbye. It was all very sweet, when Mr and Mrs Ottaker were trying to keep a brave face up for Val, and Mrs Vass was crying all over Stefan. His dad seemed a bit distant, but he always does. I don’t think he really understands the whole ‘magic’ thing Stefan has. Of course, my family weren’t all over me like that. We’re much more reserved about this sort of thing. But I know my dad is proud of me. I’m pretty sure, anyway.
As dusk began to fall, we set off into the Mourningwood. It was pretty dark already but I know the area from my hunting. I could see the new moon rising above. Stefan wasn’t so lucky – he fell in a hole and looked a bit annoyed. Val did pretty well for someone who doesn’t come out here much. It was really quite dark when I noticed some red eyes watching us out of the dark. Glowing red. But they skittered away when I looked at them. It was very odd. I’ve never seen anything like that in the Mourningwood, but then, even experienced hunters (like myself) know to be wary while outside the well-trodden places. I heard some wolf territory calls, but judging by the distance, we were probably safe. It was odd, though: they’re not usually active this time of year.
We continued on, searching for the lightning-struck tree. I’ve seen it a few times, in the distance, but it never struck me as anything special. Just a weird twisty shape. It usually just acts as a marker to say we’ve gone too far. So we bore north-east, but we kept hearing skittering sounds, almost like the sound of something climbing, but there’s not usually any wildlife in the area big enough to make a sound like that. Still, we walked with weapons drawn and lighted torches. We went deeper into the older parts of the forest, which I don’t know very well at all. Our imagination was playing tricks on us, making us see creepy faces in the trees. But that wasn’t what we should have been afraid of: Stefan did one of his trance things (we only realised when he squeaked in surprise) and said that there was some presence, well, three presences, in the area that were…well, not unnatural, but almost too natural. They were staying outside the circle of light from our torches, but still following us, doggedly, as though they were waiting for us to get somewhere or reach something. We peered into the darkness and saw some small shapes, about the size of a halfling with long limbs and glowing red eyes. But when Vall talked at them, they disappeared into the darkness again.
We kept going, even though we were getting tired, into the area with the really old, massive trees. The hunters say these trees are so old, they’re practically sentient. They also say there are monsters here. I know there are bears, but that wasn’t what we found. The three creatures that had been following us attacked. They had wide heads, huge mouths that seemed too big for their faces filled with really sharp teeth. They were crawling in the trees, on the edge of the firelight when we spotted them. Val, of course, started telling a ‘Man walks into a tavern’ joke. I think I’d attack to avoid hearing the rest of one of his terrible jokes.
One of them bit Stefan on the leg and he screamed like a girl. Val was mostly just flailing a torch around (which they didn’t seem to like at all, interestingly enough) but I shot one and it crumbled into this kind of weird dark shadowy stuff. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It was odd when I hit one of them with my sword, as though it wasn’t all there, or was a bit spongy. I can’t really describe it. Between us we killed them all. I think we got one each, in fact! But they all did that odd thing of crumbling into shadowy yucky stuff. They left almost sooty marks on our weapons. There were literally no remains, just smudges. Stefan did this thing where he put a hand on his leg where he was bitten and this glowing green light made the wounds knit back together a bit, but he was still limping pretty badly. And the things had damaged one of his boots by biting right through the leather.
We headed on, hoping there were no more of these things around, and found a door in a hillock. Val seemed pretty offended it wasn’t even a real building. I don’t really understand it, but each to their own. The priest of the Watcher, Friedrich, came to the door and welcomed us inside – he already had tea on the stove and bedrolls laid out for us, and a poultice for Stefan’s leg! I suppose he is blessed by the Watcher. His house was amazing inside, though. It had a big painting of the night sky on the ceiling.
He told us that the Harrowing is a sacred moment in a life and that we mustn’t speak of it to anyone outside the building because it’s a bond forged between us and what we see and hear mustn’t be shared with anyone else. I don’t know if writing this journal breaks that rule, but I suppose I’ll just have to be really careful that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
Friedrich gave us each a prediction of our paths from the Warden. His eyes changed into bizarre colours as he did it, a hawk’s eye with Stefan, a nebula with Val and pure white like marble with me. The last one freaked me out quite a bit. Stefan’s prediction was: ‘Beware the creatures that fly above the crags. They can be great allies or great enemies.’ Val’s was: ‘The path you walk is a long one. There are those who will show you the way, but the price may be far too high for you.’ Mine was: ‘You can shape kingdoms or bring them to their knees, but if you make the wrong choice, those you love will suffer the most.’
Mine certainly speaks of adventure! So I suppose I won’t be staying in Grunthal all my life. I admit, I’m a bit glad of that. My brother went off to war so long ago, and I’ve wanted to follow in his footsteps for years.
We told the priest about the creatures we encountered. He seemed quite worried and told us the story of the Warden and the Watcher. We’ve all been told that ever since we were little, but his version had something new.
The Warden and the Watcher are sister and brother, priestess and priest, and are privy to the paths of creation. We all know this, but he told us that what he was about to say was to go no further than us in case other people panic. There is a third god – the Sleeper – who is not evil, despite what his creatures might suggest, but is the stuff of both dreams and nightmares. He was under the care of the watcher and the warden and they were all brothers and sister of the sky and born of it. The Watcher has influence over the stars, suns and watches over us. The Warden controls the colours of the day. The Sleeper knows the darkness of the sky and the night is the Sleeper’s dreams. Apparently it is rare for new creatures of dreams to appear and attacking with red eyes means that something may be disturbing the Sleeper’s slumber. If we tell anyone but Guardian Evelyn about this, they may panic and a nightmare is fuelled by the fears of others. Friedrich will be looking out for Grunthal and sending word out, so it should be safe. He hopes the Sleeper won’t wake, because apparently he can’t see the outcome of that and that means it could be bad.
He put a gross poultice on Stefan’s leg and we had some fruit and jerky and then we went to bed. The next morning, he gave us a package of fine pipe tobacco for Elder Oleg and one for ourselves. Apparently it can be used as currency in some city, possibly the City of Birds (I have no idea what that is.) Suspect the Friedrich might not be all there, but he was very nice. It was raining when we went home but we were under the forest’s thick canopy so just occasionally a really big drop of water would fall on our heads. We went back to Grunthal and gave Elder Oleg his pipeweed, and told Guardian Evelyn about what the Priest of the Watcher had said. She didn’t seem all that surprised – apparently we quite often get things that aren’t entirely normal round here, but Friedrich’s wards keep us safe. He would have been screaming if the Sleeper was waking! But she said she would send word for outside help, possibly from the cathedral, via Absalon.
We decided that we all wanted to go out and explore the world rather than stay in Grunthal, so Absalon agreed to take us with him when his caravan leaves. We had a couple of days to prepare. My father gave me the family armour to take with me. It’s made of boar leather – I felt pretty intimidated taking it. Of course, he gave me a lecture on what to do and not to do. It mostly involved not talking to strangers, watching out for thieves, not drinking the water down south without putting a little wine in it, and not getting pregnant! And…then he hugged me. That was more than a little odd. I suppose he is proud of me. I shall have to make sure I don’t disappoint him.
They say the new moon is a weird time. It was certainly weird for us. But we’re off to Seaberg now with Absalon’s caravan. Seaberg has a population of a couple of hundred people, a castle and a knight! Imagine, a female knight!

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