57. The Gray Forest

Till has lost count of how many days have gone by.

Only a sudden change in the landscape tells him that they have truly made progress on their road.

One afternoon, they pass into a seemingly endless stretch of forest so dense that even at midday it looks as if night is about to fall. The rain has stopped for a time, but a wet mist continues to linger among the trees. Hours later it still has not lifted.

Hargis tells him that they have entered the Gray Forest, the last stretch of wilderness before the lands of Northern Hestia. Till finds the forest very dreary. Too quiet, as well. Hardly any birds sing in this place, save crows and ravens, and they encounter no other travelers on the muddy trail they follow.

They make camp for the night in a clearing that is just large enough to accommodate Lord Osdath’s tent and the larger one where the Guardian sleeps, as well as a few smaller ones for the highest-ranking soldiers. The other men camp here and there between the trees where they can find space for their tents and lean-tos. Near dusk, when the cooking fires are being lit, Till wanders to the edge of the clearing, where he has seen what looks like a small stone building on a wooded hillock. As he moves away from the camp, the voices of the men grow more distant, and soon he can no longer tell them from from the steady whisper of the mist dripping from the trees.

When he reaches the top of the hillock, he finds that the building is a shrine. He’s seen others like it here and there along the roads they traveled, but they never stopped near one of them before, and he’s curious to have a closer look. This one is green with moss and overgrown with vines, and many of the stones from which it was built have fallen and lie half-hidden among the leaves that cover the ground. The cool air is rich with the scents of mushrooms and wet earth.

Inside the shrine, underneath a masoned alcove that has largely crumbled, stands a figure of pale smooth stone.

The statue is almost a twin of the one in the courtyard of the Sundrance, but far more weathered. Only vague hints remain of where its nose and eyes and mouth once were, and the hand lifted in greeting or warding has broken off at the elbow.

Till spends some time searching for the lost arm among the dead leaves. He finds nothing. After a while, he decides to go back to the camp. He turns one more time to look at the statue, and finds himself unable to take his eyes off the featureless face looking down at him. He stands still before the shrine, only dimly aware that the dripping of mist from leaves and branches is no longer the only sound he hears. The forest has come alive with the trilling and whistling of uncounted toads, punctuated by the less frantic croaking of frogs marking a beat to their cousins’ song.

Dusk has come, and all light is fading.

When Till finally tears himself away from the statue’s half-imagined face, the trees are crowding more closely around him than before, silent and menacing, murmuring and whispering as an unfelt breeze stirs their branches.

How chill the air has grown.

Just when he wants to run back to the camp, he hears footsteps approaching.

Hargis comes climbing up the hillock in her dark gray cloak, its hood covering her face in shadow so that it looks as vague as that of the overgrown statue. Behind her, the campfires flickers warmly through the trees, distant and unreachable as the stars.

“You have found the shrine,” she says.

NEXT: The Silent Children

 

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