By D.R. Ross
Dismal lay the forest path before the army of armored knights and leather-clad soldiers. A desolate mist shrouded the woods while a heavy fog hid the morning sky. The men breathed the thick and stale air with slow and fearful breaths. The horses of the mounted knights snorted nervously. The forest lay deathly silent before the great army. No birds sang. No insects buzzed. No breeze rustled the leaves of the trees. The men stalked forth cautiously with their weapons drawn while bold-faced knights led the way down the overgrown trail.
General Korgian and the other knights insisted there was nothing to fear. It was just a forest, they had said. Other than the strange silence, there was no reason why the soldiers should be expecting an assault. Despite the legends, there was nothing extraordinary in these woods.
But the knights were wrong. This forest was sacred. These soldiers did not belong here and they knew it.
The soldiers did not know what would happen in these mysterious woods, but what came was not what they had anticipated. A shrill cry broke the silence. The men flinched fearfully. The knights took a defensive stance with their weapons held before them while the foot soldiers reluctantly followed their lead. Bewildered and afraid, the men looked about with wide-eyed terror for the monsters they could not see but suspected were nearby.
The piercing cry turned into a horrible inhuman wail followed by the sounds of roaring beasts. Then suddenly, a hoard of birds broke through the mist. They swarmed over the soldiers, pecking at their armor or piercing their flesh. Despite the little damaged the small birds were able to inflict, they succeeded in terrifying the already frightened soldiers. The ranks fell apart as men turned and fled back the way they had come.
“Stand your ground!” the mounted knights hollered. “Stand your ground! They’re just birds, for the love of light!”
As most of the knights struggled to regain order with threats or words of courage, one mounted knight remained immobile. Derin was a man not yet forty but a seasoned warrior none-the-less. His face remained passive and his lean but strong frame was relaxed even as the birds pecked at him. He wore heavy chain mail from neck to thigh, a battered metal breast and back plate, and thick leather boots that came up to his knees. His black hair was long enough to blend with the dark horse-hair falling from the back of his plumed helmet.
Derin was supposed to help restrain his men, but he said and did nothing. He knew the soldiers were not supposed to be here. While his superiors had insisted that the stories of the Tethran woods were nothing more than old superstition, Derin maintained otherwise.
Even before he had entered the forest, he heard its timeless song. This forest was the last sacred place on earth; the only place left untainted by men. There was no doubt in Derin’s mind that it had stood unmolested for so long for a very good reason. So why was he here, Derin asked himself. Why did he travel where he knew in his heart that he should not be? Because as a soldier, he followed orders, because this life as a soldier was all he had left.
Then just as suddenly as they had appeared, the birds vanished as they flew out of sight. The woods fell eerily silent once again. As the other knights struggled to regain order, a soft breeze picked up. Derin closed his eyes and breathed in the fresh wood-scented air. Using the skills he had learned as a child, he listened to the words in the forest‘s song. “Stay away”, “Leave now”, “Begone”, he heard it say.
Eventually, the soldiers were brought back into their ranks. The fog slowly lifted as the men were forced to continue their trek. It was off to war they went. The men of Tethra marched through the sacred Tethran forest to fight with the men of Ungal. This never-ending war had gone on for so many years that the reason for war had been long-since forgotten. But still, they hated and fought.
Derin hated, but he didn’t hate his enemy. He hated the uselessness of the ongoing battles. He despised the slaughter that both sides participated in. Many towns had been destroyed. Innocent women and children were needlessly abused and murdered. It was disgusting. Derin had once believed he was fighting a just war. But he had seen too much, done too much, and lost too much. Now he just wanted it all to end. He said nothing of this to his comrades-in-arms. He just mechanically did as he was told and hoped to soon die in battle.
With the mist dissipating and the forest gloom lifting away the men moved forward with a little more ease. The knights soon convinced them that they had simply startled a flock of birds. If this was the worst the forest could do, then they were safe, the knights had said. Derin, however, knew otherwise.
A chill hung in the air. Gangly skeletal limbs reached out over their path. Although normal sounds of the forest could now be heard, Derin saw no signs of animal life. But something was watching them; something hidden. He could feel its critical gaze as hundreds of men and horses trudged a black gouge through the sacred forest. The soldiers still had far to go and the forest had plenty of time to try again.
Unknown to most of the soldiers, the woods sang. It was a song of deep sadness for what was being lost, frustration at the violation of the intruders, and helplessness at being unable to stop them. The days of magic were waning. Soon magic would be all gone and no one would be left to hear the songs of the great oaks. But despite the inevitableness of their destruction, the forest was determined to resist.
As the main army lingered along the pathway for a brief rest, Derin followed a small animal trail into the woods. He tread with care as he made his way towards one of the sources of the forest’s song. A soft breeze rustled leaves and grass and caressed his face. The air was fresh with the scent of Mother Earth, zesty pine, and fragrant flowers.
Before long, Derin stood beneath a giant oak and gazed up at its lofty boughs. The oak’s song hummed through his body. Derin reached out his hand and reverently touched the great tree. The moment his fingers touched the rough bark, the song grew and filled his entire body with a radiating warmth. The melody resounded clearly, but not so much with a sound that could be heard with the ears as with a feeling that could be embraced. The song was a mixture of emotions, the strongest being that of sorrow. Slow and mournful, the lamentation stirred a deep sadness within Derin’s own heart, making him want to weep.
Long ago, the forest covered a great expanse of land and was full of cheerful and magical creatures. Happy were its days when the rambunctious gnomes danced beneath the trees, when the mischievous wood fairies nestled in its great arms, when the timeless elves pruned its branches and sang their own songs with harmonious delight. But those days were long gone. The forest dwindled as man ate at its edges with axes and ploughs. The woodland creatures hid in fear, seldom ever singing and dancing.
Mixed within the woeful sadness of the tree’s song was the wail of helplessness. The great forest was once full of magic that kept the forest safe and intruders at bay. But with magic slowly dying away, the forest was vulnerable. There was no longer enough magic to keep the invaders from entering. Its magic was slowly being eaten away by the violations of man. But some of the forest would still try to resist, as was evident in the occasional melody of indignation and frustration heard in the song. Neither the men nor Derin himself would be immune to the dangers. Even though Derin was one of the few who could still hear the tree’s song, he was a violator as well.
As Derin lost himself in the sadness of the song, he was interrupted by an intrusive sound. He snapped out of his trance as though he had been violently struck. Derin turned away from the tree with uncharacteristic anger. A scowl formed upon his brow. But Commander Kreg didn’t seem to notice the look. He was a fool of a man, ignorant yet arrogantly certain of his perceived superiority. Kreg was of the same rank as Derin. He was the same age and the same height, but that was where the similarities ended. Kreg was a heavyset man with light bushy hair. His beard was thick and his bright blue eyes contrasted sharply with Derin‘s dark piercing gaze.
“What ‘r’ ya doin‘,” Kreg asked with an amused and condescending look on his face.
“Do you have any idea how old this tree is, Kreg?” Derin asked bitingly. “Do you know how many ages it has seen? It could tell great stories, but few even bother to hear them anymore.” Derin knew Kreg could care less. It was like talking to a fish about air or to a tree about the desert.
Kreg laughed mockingly. “You’re one of those, are ya? I never took you to be one of them tree-worshipers. Next you’ll be telling me that fairies are real, that there really is such a thing as gnomes and dragons, and that there were once men who could move the earth with their mind. Wake up, Derin. All there is is what you see.”
Derin smothered his anger. He could hear the tree’s song. It was real. This world was full of things that Kreg would never understand. But just because the fat ignorant brute couldn’t comprehend, didn’t mean it didn’t exist.
When Derin did not reply, Kreg snorted in disgust and turned and left Derin with the tree. Derin wasn’t certain that he believed all of the old stories of the woods, but he knew the forest was alive and he knew it demanded respect.
Derin immersed himself into the tree’s song once again and mourned for the loss of all the things that had once brought him joy. His mother and father had lived near the forest and taught him the happiness of the old ways. But they had died some time back when the enemy armies came to their land. The armies had not only killed his mother and father, but burned a large part of the forest as well. As Derin grew to manhood, he married the most wonderful woman but lost her to a sickness brought by the soldiers. She had borne him a son, but Derin was so busy fighting, he barely had time for the boy. The boy grew to manhood and followed his father to battle. But it wasn’t long before the war took him as well.
The tree’s song reminded Derin that he had nothing left to live for. But unlike the tree, he had long since given up. There was nothing he, a simple man, could do to bring back the all the life and magic that the wars had taken away.
Despite the misery the song brought him, Derin cringed when his superior gave the order continue onward. With great reluctance, Derin let go of the song and made his way back to the men. It wasn’t long before he was back on the march with the other soldiers.
The day grew hot. Derin swatted at giant flies, occasionally managing to kill one as it bit through his skin to get his blood. As the swarm of flies and mosquitoes grew thicker, so did the old forest. The soldiers’ march became more arduous and much more treacherous. Flesh was badly cut as the soldiers tried to hack their way through sharply barbed briar that blocked their path. Many a man broke an ankle or knee as they stumbled through mud or caught their feet on hidden roots. Soldiers had to warily watch the tree limbs that fell across the trail for it seemed that as soon as they turned their eyes away, a branch grabbed them and tossed them to the ground. Some men broke a rib, an arm, or a leg in their violent falls. The forest was fighting back as best as it could.
Eventually, their path was completely blocked by a huge fallen oak tree. Branches thicker than the largest man lay in a tangled mass upon the ground. The scouts insisted that this wasn’t there when they had ridden ahead. As new as the leaves on the tree were, Derin knew they were speaking the truth. The perfectly healthy tree most likely had fallen in sacrifice.
As Derin watched the soldiers methodically chop the large dead tree away, he almost cried. This greatest of trees had forfeited its life for nothing. Even though the soldiers had been delayed, they were able to remove the obstacle from their path and move on through the forest.
The flames of the campfires lit the dark forest with a haunting glow. Shadows lurked behind every tree and bush. The sounds of night seemed even more eerie in this place. The chirp of crickets pulsed gratingly, almost angrily. The howl of the wolves was filled with more menace than sadness. And every once in a while, an owl would hoot so loudly that it seemed they were no more than an arms-length away.
The soldiers huddled close to the fires, too scared to sleep, too afraid to venture away from the assumed safety of the fire’s light. As the men ate their evening meal, they related their version of the day’s harrowing events. Some of the stories were exaggerated, but not by much.
One soldier, who professed to know the circumstances first-hand, told how one of his comrades went into the woods to relieve himself. Just as he ventured out of sight, his screams echoed through the forest. Before anyone could react to his call, the soldier’s cry was abruptly cut short. When a group of men went to investigate, they found the soldier’s dead body mangled almost beyond recognition.
Another soldier who went off the path was later found to have been hung by a tangle of vines. And yet another man had supposedly been impaled through the head by a branch simply because he wasn’t looking where he was going.
Many men claimed to have known someone who had died within moments of a poisonous insect sting or snake bite. One soldier told how he watched with terror as a horde of scorpions swarmed out from under a log that some men had been sitting on. Supposedly, every single one of those men died a slow and agonizing death from the scorpions’ stings.
While the soldiers contributed all these events to the magic of the sacred forest, the knights still insisted otherwise. Everything that had occurred was due to carelessness or simple chance, they had said. Derin disagreed with them. The forest might not be able to stop all the men at once, but it could take them out one by one.
Derin was just finishing his meal when the noises of the night suddenly went silent. The change was so abrupt that everyone took notice. Some men began to whisper frantically and were quickly hushed by their comrades who stood and drew their weapons in defense. Something was about to happen and the soldiers knew it.
The camp was shrouded in a silence so thick that even the crackling of the campfires could not be heard. With almost unbearable trepidation, the men peered anxiously into the woods around them. As Derin swept his gaze across the span of threes, a shadowy movement caught his eye. But when he stared at its origin, he saw nothing. It could have been a trick of the dancing flames of the fire, but he doubted it. Something was out there.
Then before anyone had time to brace themselves, a gust of wind burst through the encampment. A few men yelled in surprise as the gale picked them up and tossed them to the ground. Some men tried to block the air with their arm only to have the wind’s power force them to hit themselves in the face. Another soldier reacted by slashing his sword at the gust in such a way that it would have been comical under different circumstances.
With the wind came a tremendous howl of wolves. As the men were busy trying to keep their footing against the wind, a pack of the ferocious beasts tore through the camp. They didn’t stop long enough to kill anyone but they ripped at clothes and flesh as they ran by. By the time the soldiers took a stance to defend themselves, the wolves had already disappeared back into the woods leaving not a single casualty behind them.
Men readied themselves for another attack but instead of wolves, it was fog. Carried by the harsh winds, a thick mist covered the camp in almost complete darkness. Derin looked around and could barely see the man next to him. Even his campfire was nearly invisible.
While most men trembled with fear, Derin embraced his end. Not only did he know he deserved to die, but he also had no reason to live. As he waited patiently for death to come to him, he opened his senses to the song of the forest. This song was not one of sadness, but of menace and rage. “Go away,” the song whispered in a cheerless melody. “Go away or die.” Despite its anger, the song also felt troubled and desperate.
In Derin’s pity, he spoke into the wind. “I’m sorry,” he said in the old tongue. “I didn’t want to come here, but I am still here none-the-less. Punish me as you will.”
“Help us, Derin,” he thought he heard the song reply.
Derin’s heart skipped a beat. The forest knew is name? That couldn’t be. Even though Derin wasn’t certain he had heard correctly, he replied, “I can’t. The world has changed too much. The old ways are almost gone.”
Derin waited anxiously for a reply, but none came. The troubled song continued as before. It must have been his imagination, he thought.
Despite Derin’s request, death did not come to him. But when the fog finally lifted, he saw that it had come for may others. At least one of every fifteen men lay dead or dying. That was a great number considering that nearly a thousand soldiers were traveling through these woods.
To Derin’s surprise, not every man had been killed by unusual means. Some had been killed by their own comrades as they were mistaken for the enemy. In the gloominess of the mist, it was difficult to tell friend from foe.
Out of worry for what else might emerge from the darkness, no one slept that night. Although Derin wasn’t afraid, he did not sleep either. He kept wondering whether or not he had really heard his name in the song. He had been able to hear the tree’s song ever since he was a child but it had never spoken so directly to him before. This magical forest was dying and Derin was probably the only one of these soldiers who truly understood all that could be lost. Perhaps this was why the tree’s song had spoken to him. Was there a possibility that he could do something to stop the forest‘s decline?
As Derin pondered the question in vain, he got a rising feeling that he was being watched. When he glanced into the dark woods, admiring its haunting beauty rather than being repulsed by it, he saw the yellow eyes of an owl staring directly at him. The noises of night had long since renewed as normal, but something about this owl seemed supernatural. The eyes were far too yellow considering how dark the night was. And its look was too penetrating. Derin stared back in wonder. Was this creature really watching him or was his imagination getting the best of him?
The owl watched with an all-knowing gaze that was almost feminine. There were a few times when Derin thought he heard his name again but he was so tired that he couldn’t be sure. As he imagined all the wisdom this owl might share with the trees of this ancient forest, Darin fell into a deep and peaceful sleep.
Despite all the deaths, the army marched on. They were nearing the heart of the forest so there was no turning back. Even the desertions had stopped for no man dared to leave the apparent safety of the group. Many more soldiers died each day, but the army was still very large in number.
As they traveled, Derin became more and more depressed. He could hear the forest‘s sad beseeching song more than ever. The more he listened, the stronger it became; and the more he was certain that it was calling to him for help.
By the time they stopped again for another night, Derin could take no more. When the halt was given, Derin silently dismounted his horse and removed the saddle and harness. With years of instilled training, Derin mechanically tended to his mount. Although this work was done by rote, Derin truly cared for his horse. The steed was strong, hardy, and dependable.
As Derin combed the horse’s coat, it occurred to him that none of the horses had been hurt or killed in the attacks. It wasn’t really surprising since even though horses were domesticated, they were still wild at heart; much as a garden was tamed but could still flourish if left untended.
“Farewell, old friend,” Derin said to the horse as he patted his strong neck. At first the horse ignored him as he eagerly ate his meal. But when he saw Derin walk into the dark woods, he whinnied quietly. Derin did not look back. He made his way into the woods, following the heart of the song.
Derin prodded along through the blackness for some time, stepping around large stones, through long grass, and over small streams.. He heard not only the tree’s song, but the sound of many footsteps following. Some he could tell were of small animals while others were of larger creatures such as wolves, deer, or even bear. Any one of them could probably hurt him at any time but they let him be.
Eventually, Derin came upon a great meadow bathed in the light of the moon. The field of grass, bushes, and flowers swayed in the wind in time with the harmony of the song. In the center of the meadow was the largest oak tree Derin had ever seen. Its trunk was so thick that ten men probably couldn’t form a hugging circle around it.
Derin stared in awe at the majestic being. Almost magically, the light of the moon reflected off its leaves making it seem that the tree itself was emanating light. With reverent admiration, Derin slowly made his way to the great tree. Its song grew louder and louder in his heart as he approached. He no longer doubted that the tree had been singing his name.
When Derin found himself beneath the great tree, he knelt respectfully before it. “I’m so sorry, Wise One,” Derin said in the old tongue. “I would give anything to be able to help you, even my life.”
Derin then closed his eyes and spoke a prayer. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he poured his wishes and his blessings upon the great oak. He prayed on for a long time, yet he never grew tired. The tree’s song seemed to fill him with a power and energy that he had never before possessed. It was almost as if his soul was being cleansed by magic.
When Derin finally finished his prayers, he looked up into the tree and saw the most beautiful creature. A slender human-like woman sat in the nook of the oak and looked down upon him. She had long dark flowing hair that framed her delicately featured face. Her eyes were bright green and slightly slanted. Her full lips were as pink as a summer rose. She sat gracefully with one knee pulled to her chest and her other leg dangling towards the ground. And folded gently behind her back were a pair of gossamer wings.
Derin’s mouth fell open as he gazed up at the mythical creature before him. Time seemed to stop as their eyes locked. She was more beautiful than anything he had ever seen in his entire life.
Her face was impassive as she stared back at him. Whether she was angry at his violation of the forest or simply just curious as to why he was there, he could not tell. But neither did he care. Either way, his old life was over. Never again would he have to fight a bloody battle. Never again would he have to watch in vain as a friend was slaughtered before his eyes. Never again would he desecrate the sanctity of the magical forest. If he were to die, he hoped his blood would be the sacrifice needed for the ancient forest to survive a while longer.
Derin began to weep uncontrollably as the tree’s song overwhelmed him. It was sad and sweet at the same time. It carried a soft melody of both loss and hope. With movements that made her seem part of the song, the beautiful feminine creature gracefully glided down before him. Derin remained immobile, prepared to accept whatever punishment or gift she chose to give him.
“We have been waiting for you, Derin,” she said in a musical voice.
Derin closed his eyes and sank his head to the ground with relief. The song comforted him as he breathed in the fresh scent of the earth and grass. It was finally over, he said to himself. At last, his troubled soul was free.