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THE BAY OF CAVERNS
The realm of Omain was a magnificent place. A dark-stoned castle overlooked a small city with tidy streets. High above, mountains whose tops were covered in perpetual snow encircled the kingdom. From these snowy tops, a wide and winding river cascaded down the slopes and ran directly to the center of town in the valley.
There was also a small fishing seaport swarming with small and brightly colored boats. When the hush of nighttime fell over the fish market, the citizens were lulled to sleep by the sound of the ocean waves. Every morning, dozens of fishermen followed the river, raising the triangular sails of their wooden boats and casting their nets and fishing lines into the cove.
The streets of Omain were unpaved. One traveled them either on foot or riding a donkey. Every inhabitant was poor, with the exception of Lord Edonf, who lived in the castle. He was the ruler of this little paradise and demanded that each family pay huge taxes for the upkeep of the kingdom. Each month, on the full moon, the lord's personal guard came down to collect the tax money.
If a citizen was unable to pay, he was immediately thrown into an iron cage and exposed to gaping onlookers in the center of the market. Deprived of food and water, suffering from the cold, or from the heat and mosquitoes, the wretched person often stayed caged for days, even weeks. The town dwellers knew that being placed in the cage was usually a death sentence for the prisoner. So everyone tried to scrupulously pay Lord Edonf his dues.
Edonf was as fat as a whale. And with eyes that popped out of their sockets, a large mouth, and oily skin covered with pimples, he looked exactly like one of the huge sea toads that invaded the fishing village once a year in the spring. In addition to being frighteningly ugly, Edonf was said to have a brain the size of a tadpole's. By the hearths in all the houses, the elders told the children stories about the incredible stupidity of their ruler. Of course, these tales were embellished over time, taking on new life depending on the talent of the teller, but they never failed to delight both young and old.
So it was that everyone in Omain knew the story of Yack the Troubadour, who had passed through town to entertain the villagers with his company of buffoons. He had pretended to be a famous doctor, and for nearly a month, Lord Edonf followed his advice. Yack made Edonf swallow lamb droppings coated in sugar as a cure for forgetfulness. Ever since, it was said that Edonf had totally recovered his memory and would never forget the fake doctor--or the taste of lamb droppings. The elders of Omain were now in the habit of telling their children that if they ever forgot to obey their parents, they too would get a taste of Yack's medicine. Once they heard this tale, every child always had an excellent memory.
Amos Daragon was born in Omain. His father and mother were both craftspeople and had traveled for years looking for the ideal spot to settle down. When they discovered the lush land of Omain, they decided to stay, convinced that they would remain there until the end of their days.
But this honest couple made a serious mistake when they built a little cottage on the edge of the forest, not far from town, on land belonging to Lord Edonf. When Edonf heard the news, he sent his guards to pay them a visit, and ordered that they be caged and their house burned. In exchange for their lives and for the trees they had felled to build their humble house, Urban Daragon suggested that Lord Edonf allow him to work for his lordship without pay to reimburse his debt. Edonf agreed. Twelve years had gone by since that sad day, and Amos's father was still paying by the sweat of his brow for his past mistake.
After so much time toiling on behalf of Lord Edonf, Urban was a pitiful sight. He had lost a great deal of weight and was wasting away. Edonf treated him like a slave, always demanding more of him. The last few years had been particularly difficult for Urban, as his master had started to cudgel him to make him work faster. The ruler of Omain took pleasure in beating Urban, who had no choice but to endure Edonf's wrath. Every day Amos's father came back home humiliated, his limbs sore. Since he didn't have enough money to flee the realm, or enough strength to confront Edonf and break away from him, he left his home defeated every morning and returned bloodied every night.
The Daragon family was the poorest in the village, and their cottage was the smallest of all. Its walls were made of roughly hewed tree trunks laid on top of each other. To retain the warmth of the hearth, Urban Daragon had filled all the holes with hay and peat moss to make them airtight. The straw roof was fully waterproof, and the big stone chimney, huge compared to the size of the house, seemed to be the only sturdy part of the dwelling. A small flower garden, mostly shaded because of the big trees surrounding it, and a minuscule building vaguely resembling a barn completed the picture.
Inside the cottage, a wooden table, three chairs, and bunk beds were the only furniture. The chimney occupied almost all the surface of the east wall. A cooking pot was always hanging on the hook above the fire. Living here meant a constant battle against heat and cold, against hunger and poverty.
Since childhood, Amos had acquired many skills. He hunted pheasant and hare in the forest, fished in the river with an improvised fishing rod, and collected shellfish on the ocean shores. Thanks to him, the family managed to survive, even if on some days there wasn't much on the table.
Over the years, Amos had perfected an almost foolproof way of catching edible birds. He used a long branch shaped like a Y, along which he slid a cord with a slipknot at the end. When he spotted a partridge, he stayed a good distance from his prey, only slowly moving the forked end of the branch toward the animal. Noiselessly, Amos would slip the knot around the bird's neck and suddenly pull on the cord. In this manner, he often brought home the family dinner.
Amos learned to listen to nature, to blend in among the ferns, and to walk noiselessly in the woods. By the time he was twelve years old, he was familiar with the different types of trees and their fruits and nuts, knew the best spots for finding wild berries, and could track all the animals of the forest. Sometimes, during the cold season, he unearthed truffles, mushrooms that grow underground, at the base of oak trees. The forest held no secrets from him.