Beginnings

“Will she be alright?” Conrad waited anxiously for his mother’s diagnosis. He had brought Izzy to the palace as quickly as he could and, after hearing the situation, the queen took her immediately to one of the many bedrooms and brought her different medicines in different bottles. Conrad was standing outside the room when the queen finally emerged.

“She’ll be fine,” she assured him. “The unconsciousness is a defense technique. Her body is just resting after the ordeal. I’ve given her something to help with the nasty bump on her head. That could have gotten bad without treatment. She’ll probably sleep most of the day, but she’ll be fine.”

Conrad breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m glad I was able to get her here. And I’m glad to be home.”

His mother smiled. “It’s nice to have you home, son.”

Now that everyone was safe and well, Conrad’s mind returned to the subject that had been puzzling him ever since he read Izzy’s book. “Where’s father? I need to speak with him.” The king was there when he arrived with Izzy, but Conrad hadn’t seen him since.

“He’s in the throne room. He would like to speak with you, too.”

* * * * *

“Hello, father.”

The king was sitting on the throne. He rose to greet his son.

“Welcome home. You did well, son, bringing that poor creature here.”

“Thank you, father. But I would like to speak to you about my quest.”

“I already spoke about it. I said ‘well done,’ and ‘welcome home.’ You saved someone’s life. It seems to me that your quest was successful.”

Conrad smiled. “That girl. Izzy. You’ve met her before, haven’t you?”

The king didn’t answer. “I gather you discovered something along your way.”

“I discovered so many things. I found out that I was looking for something that was here the whole time. I was headed in the wrong direction.”

“So you’ve discovered what makes our little country of Saphir the greatest of all the surrounding countries?”

“I think I have. It’s because greatness isn’t always big. And it starts right here. Or in a cottage. Or in a treehouse. It starts wherever we call home. And the people of Saphir understand that. You taught it to them. Just like you taught it to me.”

The king smiled. “Before I began wandering, looking for what the world had for me, I told my father that until I found my future I wanted to be a shadow. I wanted to be someone who would pass through and then be gone without leaving a trace. He told me, ‘Son, you will always leave a trace. Choose that trace carefully.’ My father died soon after. But because of my his wisdom, you, the grandson of a poor farmer from a distant land, are heir to this kingdom.”

The king walked down from his throne and wrapped his arms around his son.”

“And you, Conrad, will be a truly great king.”

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Signs

Izzy was still unconscious. The cart was flying down the track faster than anything Conrad had ever ridden in before. There were bright lanterns set at regular intervals along the ceiling of the tunnel, so he could see very well despite being underground. Every few hundred feet there was a small hole in the ceiling that went all the way up to the surface. Conrad noticed the sky growing a bit lighter as dawn approached. Near the holes were the signs that the guard had mentioned. They were mile markers, letting Conrad know how much farther they had to ride before reaching the city. Once there, he just had to get Izzy to the palace.

Every few minutes Conrad checked her vital signs. She seemed to be stable, but she wouldn’t wake up. Conrad propped Izzy’s head up under the bag she was carrying with her. Suddenly he remembered the fruit. Izzy ate a lot of fruit. She said that different varieties helped her in different ways. Perhaps she was carrying special fruit in her bag. He carefully removed it from under her and opened it to check. There was no fruit. Only some stems of what had apparently been her lunch and a small book. The book intrigued him. Perhaps he might learn something from it that would help. He looked up at the ceiling, waiting for another sign. One flew past. He still had a good while before they reached their destination. He opened the book to the first page and began reading. The title page read: “Tracer: a Novel by Izzy.” Conrad had never read much fiction, but this book seemed to be one worth reading. It started with a note from the author.

The following work is a fictional account of a real person, his adventures, and his love for a beautiful girl. I had the honor of meeting the real-life Tracer when I was young. He was on a quest to do good wherever he went, and he succeeded. He was passing through the forest when he came across the little clearing where I live. I was in the process of building my house and had gotten stuck near the top of my tree. He climbed up and rescued me. It may seem like a little thing, but it saved my life. Enough little things add up to great things. And Tracer had all the signs of greatness. I hope to meet him again someday. Meanwhile, I hope to preserve his story within these pages. Please pardon my humble embellishments.

What followed were pages and pages of fantastic adventures, obviously invented by Izzy’s imagination, but all with a hint of truth in them. Many of them revolved around Tracer and his true love Esmeralda. Conrad smiled. “Perhaps ‘Izzy’ is a shortened form of ‘Esmeralda,'” he thought. “It must have been a common name a while ago. It’s my mother’s name, too.”

After a while, Conrad was so engrossed in the story that he forgot to keep an eye on where he was. He continued reading until he reached the end of the writing. It had stopped in the middle of a sentence. He flipped through the pages, hoping it might pick up later. It didn’t, but he found an epilogue at the very back of the book.

Tracer and Esmeralda continued their adventures back down the mountain and eventually found themselves in the capital city. Their care for the common people and their wisdom in making life better for others soon brought them into the company of the old king. Having no heir, he treated Tracer as his own son. When the king died a few years later, he appointed Tracer to take his place. Tracer is still ruling Saphir, blessing us all with his family, his nobles, and his entire country with his gentle wisdom.

Conrad couldn’t think for a few moments. His mind was going everywhere at once. He was suddenly brought back to reality when he noticed that he was just passing the final sign before reaching the city. He grabbed the brake lever and pulled it back as quickly as he could. The cart lurched and shook and came screaming to a halt just as it reached a ladder leading to the surface. He was almost home.

Tracks

The next hours were uneventful. Night fell before Conrad reached the bottom of the mountain. The darkness and the added weight of Izzy and the limited use of his hands made the progress much slower than it was on the way up. The rain of the previous night had cleared, though, and there were patches of moonlight to help him along. He stopped and rested a couple times, only for a few moments, then continued on his way. Izzy continued sleeping peacefully. The lump on her head where she had hit it against the side of the cliff looked bad, though, and Conrad knew that every moment was important.

Hours passed and Conrad was certain that morning couldn’t be far off before he finally stumbled into a small and familiar clearing. He set Izzy under a nearby tree and began to search the dark ground for the hole that led to the underground tunnel, his arms sweeping back and forth across the forest floor. It took him a while, as the hole was expertly hidden, but eventually his hands sunk beneath the leaves and he found himself reaching deep into the ground. He pushed the leaves away reveal the entrance. He hollered into the blackness.

“Hello? Is anybody down there?”

After a few moments he heard someone calling back from inside the hole. “Who goes there? What is your business?”

Conrad quickly explained his situation. The voice’s owner pushed his above ground and took a look at Conrad and Izzy and instantly invited them down. After Conrad had lowered Izzy down to the man, he hopped down the hole himself and found himself in a familiar tunnel. Before he left the city in the forest, Clayton had directed him to a cart that ran along the city’s rail system. It took him down this tunnel to the foot of the mountain.

“You’re in luck,” said the man. “There’s a cart ready to head back to city right now.” He pointed to a wooden cart much like the one Conrad had ridden here. “But of course, we usually go to the capital city for medical emergencies. We have many things here, but the best doctors are still the ones who live around the palace. We have another set of tracks that runs express from here to the outskirts of the capital if you want to go there instead.”

Conrad was very relieved to hear this. If he could get near the palace quickly, then there still might be time for him to take Izzy to his mother. She would know exactly how to treat her. Besides, Conrad wanted very much to be back home.

“I’ll take the track to the capital. Thank you.”

The man led them down a tunnel that branched off of the main. A few yards down the tunnel was another cart sitting on a track. Conrad laid Izzy one on the seats, then climbed in and waited. The man pulled a large lever near the back of the cart.

“It’ll move pretty fast,” he explained, “but it’s still far. Watch the signs above your head. They’ll let you know how close you are. When you’re almost there, pull this lever here.” He pointed to a small lever sticking out of the floor. “That’ll make you stop. Otherwise you’ll keep going and end up on the other side of the country.”

There was a sound of heavy machinery beginning to turn somewhere beneath them. Suddenly the cart jumped to life. It rolled slowly at first, then began to speed up little by little. Within a few minutes they were flying through the dark tunnel.

“Best of luck!” the man hollered after them as his voice faded into the distance. “Keep an eye on the signs.”

Hands

“Apples? You need apples?” Conrad felt around the pack on his back. Sure enough, he had one apple left. It was a bit soft from the long journey, but it was an apple nonetheless. “I have one here.”

The creature looked up with a sudden burst of hope. “Oh, please toss it down! Carefully. I don’t want to move too quickly. I don’t know how strong this root is.”

Conrad quickly but carefully held the apple over her free hand and lightly dropped it. She grabbed at it, but she wasn’t able to grip it before it bounced off her fingers and continued downwards. Conrad’s heart jumped a bit as the little creature nimbly swung her leg up, knocking the apple with her knee. It bounced again, rolled along her ankle, and came to a stop on the top her foot where she skillfully balanced it.

“That was close,” she said, a bit out of breath. She slowly brought her foot up to her hand, keeping the apple steady. With a sigh, she finally grabbed in the apple in a sturdy grip and took a bite. She closed her eyes for a few seconds, as if waiting for something marvelous to happen. Slowly, slowly her grip on the root tightened and she began to pull herself up. Soon she was high enough to reach Conrad’s outstretched hand and he grabbed onto her. Before long they were both safely on the solid ground near the cliff’s edge, breathing heavily.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m glad to meet you. I’m Izzy.” With that she passed out.

Conrad sat up and looked at the small creature beside him. She had a large bump on her head. He shook her gently. She refused to stir. Suddenly everything about the quest and Tracer seemed unimportant. All he could think was that this little Izzy creature could be seriously injured.

“Don’t worry,” he told her. “We’re going to find help. If only we were closer to the palace. I’d take you to my mother. She’s good with things like this. Perhaps the city in the forest will be best.”

He picked her up and began to carry her back down the mountain. Step after step, the hours seemed to pass slower than they did on the way up. But Conrad kept moving. He might have failed his quest, but he wasn’t going to fail this small creature.

Roots

It was getting to be mid afternoon when Conrad was finally nearing the top of the mountain. There had been a vague path leading through the forest up to this point, but it was beginning to grow even fainter. Just before it disappeared completely, it emptied into a small clearing. In the middle of the clearing was a very large tree. It was surrounded by a tangle of huge roots weaving in and out of the ground.

Conrad slowly made his way around the tree, keeping his eyes alert for signs of life other than the normal forest creatures. A path appeared again on the other side of the clearing, continuing to the top of the mountain. He began to walk along it, turning back for a last look at the impressive tree. Something about it caught his eye. He walked back into the clearing and stopped right in front of the tree. He ran his hand over the bark. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds of tiny knife marks covering this side of the trunk. Some were little more than scars; they had obviously been there a long time. Further down they seemed much more recent, perhaps even just a few hours old. Somebody lived near here.

Conrad felt a surge of excitement. “Tracer can’t be far from here!” he declared to himself. He hurried to the path leading up the mountain, running as fast as he could uphill after a long day of hiking.

Before long he saw that the path was leading to the edge of a cliff. He slowed to a stop and began to look around. He was at the highest point he could see; the top of the mountain. The view of the lands beyond Saphir was spectacular. He turned around and looked back down the mountain. The view was equally brilliant. But even from this vantage point there was no sign of anyone besides himself and miles and miles of forest. He had reached the farthest point that he had set out to reach, and it was just a beautiful dead end.

“Don’t lose heart,” he thought to himself. “Someone makes a habit of coming to that tree. I’ll just go back there and wait.” He said out loud to reassure himself, “Just need to hold on a bit longer.”

“Oh, but I’m not sure my strength can hold out any longer,” replied a small voice coming from somewhere beneath Conrad’s feet. He jumped a bit and had to catch himself so he didn’t trip off the cliff.

“Is someone there?” he asked, slowly leaning out over the edge. A few feet down the face of the cliff was what appeared to be a small person. One of her hands was gripping a tree root sticking several inches out of the cliff, and the rest of her was dangling quite helplessly.

“Can you reach me?” she asked. “My fingers are starting to slip.”

“How long have you been there?” Conrad asked before the urgency of the situation suddely struck him. “Never mind, I’ll try to pull you up.” He stretched out on his stomach and hung as much of him as he could over the cliff. His hand was still a few inches from hers. “You’ll need to pull yourself up just a little bit.”

She tried. “It’s no use,” she sighed. “I’m not strong enough after all of this hanging. Oh, if only I’d packed them.”

“Packed what?”

“Well, I didn’t think I’d need my fruit for strength. I was only going to…oh, I’m starting to feel dizzy. I bumped my head on the way down here. This may not end well.” For the first time her face showed a bit of concern as she looked down. “Yes, I certainly could use a bit of strength. Why didn’t I pack my apples?”

Cliff

It was mid-morning, and Izzy was making her way up the mountain toward the cliff just a few miles from her large tree. She hadn’t been out there for ages. She used to climb up the mountain all the time when she was younger and sit near the cliff’s edge and look out over the land. But recently she had gone down the mountain whenever she went out. There was more food down the mountain. Things were just so busy now. If she wasn’t writing or sleeping she was finding food.

“This is good for me,” she noted to herself. “It’s really been far too long. A trip up the mountain is overdue. And this is a very necessary trip. If I don’t know what the view looks like from the cliff, then I’ll just be guessing at what Tracer saw. And readers of books are the ones who should be guessing, not the authors.”

Her legs began to feel the strain of pulling her body, small though it was, upwards for so many steps. She reached into the knitted bag hanging over her shoulder and pulled out a peach. Peaches were for fighting fatigue and building stamina. She bit into the fruit and within a couple seconds she was rejuvenated and ready to continue for a good long while.

As she neared her destination she replayed her story in her mind. She knew how every part would play out. “I’ve introduced the characters, built the conflict, and I’ve nearly brought it to its climax. Tracer must save the day and then take Esmerelda back with him to where he came from.” She remembered how much Tracer had spoken of Esmeralda. Most of the details of her story were made up, but she couldn’t change anything about how much Tracer loved Esmeralda. “Perhaps when he comes through here again he’ll bring her with him,” she hoped. “Then I can know firsthand what she’s like.” Izzy was so wrapped up in the details of her plot that she soon forgot to pay much attention to the climb. “Soon I’ll have only the final plot twist. And, oh, what a twist it will be. No one will see it coming.”

And with that she nearly stepped off the edge of the cliff.

Fortunately she’d eaten her mango slices before leaving. Mango was for fast reflexes and it lasted a long time. Her mind jumped back to reality and she caught herself a few inches from the cliff’s edge. Once her heart calmed down she was nearly swept away by the view that met her. She could see for miles over the rich and beautiful land just on the other side of the mountain from Saphir. She stood for a long time just staring out. She could live forever in the spectacle of the rivers and hills and valleys that stretched out across the land far, far beneath her feet. She was so mesmerized by it all that she didn’t notice the low growl coming from the ground below her. She didn’t notice the soft earth beginning to shift beneath her feet. She didn’t notice the small crack forming in the dirt a few feet behind her. Before she noticed anything, in a heart-stopping moment, a small shelf of land broke off of the cliff’s edge and plummeted downward, taking a terrified Izzy down with it.

Steeper

It was midmorning, and the city in the forest was far behind him. Conrad walked on through the woods, noting how the terrain was becoming steeper and he neared the mountain range. His characteristic triumphant gait had shriveled to more of a slow trudge. He was tired, and his quest was seeming more and more pointless. Everything that had happened from the beginning of his journey to this point had made him feel farther from his goal than before. His only consolation was the continual feeling that finding Tracer would make everything make sense. Even if Conrad turned out a failure, perhaps finding Tracer and hearing him speak would at least make it clear why he failed.

Tired of speculating on the foggy future, Conrad’s mind turned to the more recent past. He recalled the conversation he had had with his mother the day before he received his quest. “Saphir is a perfect kingdom, but perhaps it is too perfect,” he had said. “It seems as if nothing we do is of much importance.” He could hardly believe that those words had come from his own mouth. Things looked different way out here. Important didn’t look like slaying dragons or making aliances with other countries or fighting battles. Perhaps it was the thinning mountain atmosphere that had changed his perception, but suddenly important looked like a man finding the right woman to be his wife. It looked like a traveler befriending a band of outcasts in the woods when no one else would go near them. It looked like a father comforting a child who had a bad dream. Important looked like the faces of the people Conrad had met over the last few days. Important looked like everything Tracer had done.

“He’s saved my life twice now,” Conrad thought. “If it wasn’t for him, I’d still be in that ditch, or in the belly of that bear. I should find him to thank him if nothing else.”

And so he walked on. He pulled out the second to last apple and tried to enjoy a midmorning snack as he climbed the ever-steepening ground. He tried not to entertain the thought that Tracer might not even be at the top of the mountain. He had to be there. After this last bit of effort, his work would pay off.

Story

A quick swim at the end of a long day had tamed Izzy’s hair into a smaller and slightly more organized tangle. It was late night now, nearly the next morning. She was still awake. Most people would have collapsed into a snoring heap after a full day of food-gathering in the woods, but Izzy wasn’t quite human and she could keep herself energized if she had to. And right now she had to. She was sitting in her room inside the hollowed-out tree, writing feverishly in a small leather-bound book. Sometimes she struggled to find the right words to push the plot along, but tonight the words spilled out of her pen. And that is why she had to stay up tonight. When her fingers were ready to write, she knew it was best to let them have their way.

Tracer rode on his magnificent horse through the dark forest. He dodged trees and limbs and vines as he rode ever closer to the beautiful Princess Esmeralda. Suddenly an arrow flew by, missing his face by a few inches. Startled, he failed to notice a low-hanging branch in front of him. He felt a sudden pain in his head. Before he knew what had happened, he was no longer on his horse. He was laying on his back on the forest floor, staring at the night sky through the dark and sinister trees.

Izzy liked how this was sounding. She knew that it was only a story and that all the characters but one were made up out of her own head, but it still felt true to her. Her brain was getting sleepy, but she had to figure out what happened next. She felt around the small wooden bins around her bed until she found the one with the blueberries. She ate a couple and was instantly wide awake. She continued with the story.

“Come, Tracer, this is no time for a nap,” he told himself sternly. He rose to his feet and continued running through the forest on foot. Finally, he came to the cliff at the top of the mountain.

“Princess!” he called. “Are you there?”

“Yes,” replied the Princess. “I am here, my brave rescuer.” She was hanging from a tree root sticking out of the side of the cliff, and her hand was beginning to lose its grip. “Please, save me!”

Tracer looked over the edge of the cliff and saw…

Suddenly Izzy stopped. What did Tracer see? “Oh, dear, I’ve forgotten what the view from that cliff looks like. I suppose I shall have to go out there tomorrow and take some notes.” And so she turned down her lamp and snuggled under her many blankets. “Even if it’s fiction, it doesn’t have to be inaccurate.” She felt around for the bin with the bananas. After a couple bites she drifted straight off into a deep and contented sleep.

Sleep

Conrad’s mind didn’t want to sleep that night. It kept racing around and around, going over the events of the last few days. His quest was turning out to be anything other than what he’d planned. So far he hadn’t achieved anything remotely great. Every time he set out he got into some kind of trouble and had to be bailed out by a stranger. The only goal he had was to find an allegedly great man who apparently hadn’t done much other than introducing a man to his future wife and befriending some robbers in the woods.

His consciousness was just beginning to drift off amidst these thoughts when he was pulled back into reality by the cry of a small child, slightly muffled through the wood of the treehouse. He was about to get out of bed to investigate when he heard the sound of a door opening followed by small feet pattering across the wooden floor outside the guest room that he was sleeping in. It seems one of Clayton’s children had woken from a scary dream. The sound of the little feet and the sleepy sobs continued down the hall until they reached the safety of the master bedroom. Another door opened and closed and the crying soon subsided.

Conrad thought about his parents. He remembered being a child and running down the cold, dark, tiled halls of the palace, his bare feet echoing through the night as he escaped the clutches of some imaginary monster or dragon. He remembered the comfort of reaching his parents and the feeling of security feeling them near. He hadn’t done that in many years, but several moments of his quest so far seemed like bad dreams. Even now he had a longed to run back to the safety of his palace and into the arms of his mother and father.

He thought about his mother. She always knew exacly what words to use to make a child of any age feel better about any problems. She was strong but soft, refined but deeply caring, elegant but with a friendly twinkle in her blue eyes. He thought about his father. He had so much wisdom, as was fitting for a king. But that wisdom wasn’t just geared towards running a country; it was geared towards living life, helping people, and being a father. Conrad had never stopped the think about it before, but everything he had came from his father. Not only the material belongings that he had, but even the desire to be the best that he could be. Despite any disagreements that he may have had with his father about how to be a great king, Conrad slowly found a new respect for him. The king was a man who knew what his priorities were and he stuck by them with joy. He loved people, and he especially loved his family. Conrad realized as he finally slipped into a sound sleep, “He really is a great man.”

Leftovers

Clayton led Conrad onto one of the rail carts. It took them up a ways and then through the city. It weaved around the trees and over and under buildings. It was still night, but there were thousands of lights in the buildings and trees filling the world with a warm and beautiful glow. The size and the spectacle of such an organized city so intricately built around a thick forest left Conrad breathless. After a few minutes the cart stopped near a collection houses built in trees. This was apparently a residential area.

“Tomorrow we’ll point you in the right direction and send you along your way,” said Clayton. “We’d be glad to have you stay with us tonight. Are you hungry?”

Conrad hadn’t thought about his stomach for a while, but it was certainly feeling empty. “I’d appreciate that very much. Thank you.”

Clayton led him along a sturdy rope brige strung between the trees. It led to one of the tree houses. “This is my wooden castle,” he announced proudly. “All the comforts of home.” It was a very impressive tree house. It was bigger than most normal houses, and everything on the inside was made of beautifully hand-carved wood. “We’ll have to be quiet,” Clayton whispered. “My family’s sleeping. I’d normally be sleeping at this time, too, if I hadn’t been on border patrol tonight. You’re lucky I decided to check the tunnel before ending my shift. You’d be bear food.” They walked through a few rooms and ended up in what appeared to be a kitchen. “And speaking of food, there should be some leftovers from dinner around here somewhere.”

Soon they were enjoying some ham sandwiches and a fruit salad. Conrad donated a couple apples to the feast. Once he was filling a bit less famished, Conrad was curious for more information about the city. “So how many people did Tracer recruit to build this city? You’re one of them I gather.”

“Yes, there were fifty of us to start with. Tracer didn’t really recruit us. It’s more like he inspired us. He’s a great man, but he’s not an architect. He helped get the work force organized once we had the idea in mind, and then we were in control of the rest of the project. We did most of the work. He just made it possible. If not for him, you’d be inside that bear. Would you like some water?”

“Yes, please. So Tracer’s main contribution was killing the robbers who used to live here?”

Clayton suddenly broke the quiet with a loud and hearty laugh. “Killing the robbers! Oh, I suppose in a manner of speaking.”

The humor in whatever had been said was lost on Conrad. “What’s so funny?”

“The fifty of us who started this city. We were the robbers. Misfits, tossed out of society. Tracer didn’t kill us; he reformed us.”