Till still can’t look away from the statue’s face, or hint of a face. “Is she a Guardian, too?”
“Of course,” Hargis tells him. A few more steps, and she stands next to him. “This shrine was built more than two thousand years ago, when the Road of Crowns was first laid through the Gray Forest, that travelers might find solace in it.”
“There is a road?” Till looks about him. He sees only the forest floor, covered with leaves and fallen branches. In all directions, it stretches into the dusk. A little further down, the muddy trail on which they traveled all day winds its way past the hillock on which they stand. Here and there in the soggy earth, large square stones lie scattered. They seem little more than rocks, and are widely scattered. It never occurred to him that they might once have amounted to a paved road.
“You mean the trail?”
“Three hundred years ago, that trail was the Road of Crowns,” Hargis says. “But then an unusually warm and long summer brought a flood of meltwaters down from the Heavens’ Teeth, whose foothills form the western border of this forest. For long years after that, the soil here remained waterlogged, and the road became impossible to maintain. In the end, Emperor Tolwin had it moved north, to a region of the forest where the ground yet remained dry. It has run that way ever since. The floodwaters eventually receded, but the western part of the Gray Forest has been damp and miry ever since, and its air dank and unsound.”
Till wrinkles his nose. It is true, there is a clinging chill to this forest that does not seem to come from the evening mist alone. “Why did we come this way, then?”
“The ancient route is quicker from Heathensfall,” Hargis says. “Tomorrow, the forest trail will take us north to the new road, and we shall travel on it for the remainder of our journey.”
She takes a step toward the weathered statue, and touches the raised arm where the hand has broken off.
“For nigh on eighteen centuries, this shrine offered rest and solace to travelers. Now it is all but forgotten. But that is the way of things.”
“You remember it.”
It amazes Till how much Hargis knows about the past, and the kind of things she knows. His sister has read books about history, and taught some of it to him. They were mostly about wars and treaties and great deeds of some king or emperor, and then another, and so on. During his short life, he’s never thought about whether the roads and places and landscapes he knows were once different, or if there was a time when they were not there at all, or if one day they might be gone or altogether changed. The world, it seemed to him, was always the same, and always would be. But then he’s never thought in terms of centuries, let alone millennia.
“How come you know so much about how things were long ago?”
“It is my duty to remember.” Hargis smiles, though it’s hard to tell with the hood casting its shadow over her features. “The Guardian must know everything every Guardian before her ever knew of our world.”
Till’s eyes widen. “Everything?”
“Everything. All of history, from the beginning.”
The very thought makes Till’s head spin. Two thousand years’ worth of things? Or is it even more?
“That must take a long time to learn.”
“A very long time.”
Hargis keeps looking at the statue’s weathered face. It almost seems that she is as spellbound by it as Till.
“How did you become the Guardian?”
“I was chosen,” she says.
“By the Shaper?”
“All that happens in the world happens by His choice,” Hargis tells him. “No single drop of rain falls to the ground without Him having foreseen it in His timeless dream.”
When she speaks like this, Till thinks that he understands the story of the Shaper and how he created the world better and better, and it seems ever more marvelous and beautiful to him, and though he is in a dark forest in a strange land far from everyone he knows, and it is cold and damp and he does not know to what fate the coming days will lead him, he finds strength in her words. But even so, it is not the answer he wanted.
“I was one of the Chosen,” Hargis says. “Those who live secluded on the Forbidden Isle in service to the Shaper, in the tower of the Silent Children.”
“Silent Children? Why are they called that?”
Till shivers. He can’t say whether it is because of the damp and cold of the Gray Forest, or some chill he senses in what Hargis is about to tell him.
NEXT: No Face At All