Dealing with a loss, Warryn searches for his former home and stumbles upon a mystery.
|The laugh echoed through the tall, silent trees of the forest, giddy and shrill against the ancient serenity of their silvered limbs. Warryn stopped when he heard the laugh, and for one moment caught his breath at the memory of a child with a similar laugh.
She is gone, he reminded himself with a shake of his head. Wake up, old man. It is just a child playing. There must be a village nearby. So far north? Warryn was surprised. The Verdians who dwelt in the woods above the mountains were a nomadic people, with small use for villages. And though it was still south of the Everwoods, few would risk establishing a village so close to the mountains for fear of barbarians. The Second Barbarian War had left the clans all but decimated, and little more than isolated packs of thieves and rogues, but there were still enough of them left to be a threat to a lone village. Without the security of Safehaven’s stone walls and trained soldiers after the war, many of the southern villages would have been lost to the barbarian rabbles.
Warryn stooped to pick up an acorn and absentmindedly bounced it on his palm. The barbarians. If he opened his heart and squeezed out his whole life’s heartaches, all those woes could be laid at the barbarian’s feet. If not for them, he would never have left his native Everwoods, never have gone to Safehaven, never have gotten married . . . Warryn's fist closed over the acorn. But he was going home now. It had been decades since he had last seen his sisters and their families. Besides, there is nothing left for me in Safehaven.
Warryn opened his hand and let the acorn slide off his palm. It landed in the dirt with a dull thud and rolled under a pile of dried leaves. Another laugh danced like a gentle wind through the trees and when Warryn looked up, he saw not the stalwart oaks and elms of the forest, but rather a small girl, his granddaughter, running in the fields by his keep outside of Safehaven, picking wildflowers. He did not want to relive the memories that a village would most certainly bring back, but neither did he wish to go around it. Warryn was not exactly lost – a Verdian was at home wherever there were a couple of trees and a deer – but it had been years since he had been home. Warryn knew where his people would have settled this season, but he was no longer sure how to get there. The people of Safehaven feared the Verdians only a little less than they feared the barbarian clans, regardless of their assistance during the war, and there had never been any roads leading to the Everwoods. Perhaps the people of this village could give him direction.
Warryn tread silently in the direction of the laughter. Forest turned into village with no gradation. Warryn was walking amid the trees in one step; in the next he was in the village, as if someone had cut a swath in the woods and then plopped a village in the hole. Simple, one-story, wood-and-stone houses, many with some crude repair, circled a large, round clearing stemming from a wide dirt path on the west side of the village. The plaza resounded with activity. A red-headed boy of about ten years played a game with stones and lines drawn in the sand, while on the other side of the village three or four youngsters took turns throwing rocks at a mark in a tree. Children of varying ages played in small groups all around the clearing, but Warryn saw no one who looked older than twelve.
Where are the adults? he wondered as he walked into the hub. A boy and a girl ran past him with a toddler on their heels. The older pair did not so much as glance Warryn’s way as they brushed within a foot of him, but the youngest one slowed and inclined his head to Warryn for the barest second before turning back and running unsteadily after his companions.
Similar encounters marked Warryn’s entrance to the village. The children did not even look up from their games when he approached, purposely making noise so as not to startle them.
“Where are your parents?” he asked the redhead drawing lines in the sand. The boy threw a stone into the grid and proceeded to jump across, hopping from one foot to the next. He grinned as he landed on the other side without falling.
“Your turn.” He said to a little brown-haired girl, tossing her a stone. Not a glance, twitch, or barest expression acknowledged Warryn’s presence.
Warryn attempted to question several other children, with the same result. When he stood in front of the boys throwing stones and asked them, they simply dropped their rocks and started a new game, as if that had been their intention all along.
Some of the children near the mouth of the clearing stood up and shouted what sounded like a name. The other children looked up from their games and started to run to the path. Oh good, Warryn thought, maybe it’s an adult.
But the figure approaching could not even be seen as the path was surrounded and engulfed by dozens of laughing and chattering children. Warryn moved closer to get a better look.
“Move! I can’t get through.” A young girl in heavy, patched skirts pushed the boisterous children out of her way. They obediently cleared a path for her. She violently brushed her skirts with her hands and raised her head to glare at the swarm of children infringing on her dignity. Warryn’s heart stopped in his chest. She looked just like Jidi.
She was about six, the same age his granddaughter had been, a little shorter, with the same curly black hair and the same violet-blue eyes. As Warryn watched the tiny girl bully the children into some semblance of order, he realized that she did not look exactly like Jidi. Her eyes were more gray-blue than violet, her nose was a little more snub, and her whole face was slightly rounder. He let go of his breath.
“The king has decreed that you must all go and take a nap,” the girl declared to the resonant groans of the mob around her. “He says you are too noisy, and he cannot think. And . . .”
The girl stopped abruptly as she looked up and saw Warryn.
“Where did you come from?” she asked imperiously. Warryn looked around but saw none other she could be addressing.
He shook his head at himself and gave her a gentle smile.
“I was traveling through the woods and lost my way. I came from Safehaven,” he said.
The little girl pondered for a moment.
“What is that?”
“Safehaven? It’s a city south of here.” What an odd question. Even villages much farther north had heard of Safehaven.
Warryn suddenly noticed the other children, who were looking at the girl as if she were holding a conversation with empty air. Moreover, as if such an event were perfectly normal. “Why won’t the other children talk to me?” he asked.
The girl gestured to the children.
“They can’t talk to the spirits,” she said dismissively, and then suddenly, “What is your name?”
Warryn smiled. “My name is Warryn.”
The girl nodded.
“I’m Misty.” She tilted her head to the side and regarded Warryn. “Do you know Elias?”
Warryn shook his head.
“No. Who is he?”
An orange and green butterfly flit across the clearing, arresting the children’s gazes as they watched its sporadic flight from bush to bush. Misty spoke with a distracted air:
“You look like him. He comes around sometimes and talks to the other spirits.” The butterfly disappeared into the bushes and Misty’s eyes returned to Warryn. “He’s not like you though. He never smiles.”
The other children had started to go back to their games, and Misty suddenly realized that she had lost the attention of her subjects. She looked around with a scowl on her face, and proceeded to round up her charges and send them off, completing the task she had originally set out to do.
So another Verdian had been here. Either that or this Elias was a barbarian, but if any barbarian had found this village then these children would have been dead. Warryn looked up as Misty spoke.
She stood at the mouth of the clearing, where she had entered, facing him as the other children behind her walked or ran to whatever lay at the end of the path.
“Are you coming?”
Was he? He still did not know where he was, and this was likely the last village he would see in a while. These spirits she talked about were perhaps adults. Warryn had probably wandered into some game of make-believe the children were playing. Still, it had given Warryn something of a chill to be referred to as a ghost.
Misty was still waiting. She stood half turned toward him and half toward the path looking around with a bored expression on her face. Even given the differences, she still looked enough like Jidi to invoke painful memories. He could leave now, wander the woods with no direction, try to forget Jidi’s face and Gloria’s, and Phil, and Symon, and Denna; or he could stay in this village and be reminded of them and his failure every time he looked at this child.