Chapter 1: The Weeping Woods (Revisited)
|Gael toyed with the silver owl pinned to the right wing of his coat just above the chest, the sigil of the Academia. Maria occasionally kicked the fallen leaves and looked distracted. Uneasiness. Troubled in thoughts he tried to engage in a poor excuse of a conversation. Troubled in thoughts, she failed to make use of his leverage.
So they strode side by side in a bleak forest, in an obscured world. A world whose supporting pillars almost collapsed under the pressure of one terrifying prospect: Fredrick lied.
No. Not lied. Gael shook his head lightly and dismissed the notion. It was insulting, to him, to Maria, and to Fredrick most of all. He refused to doubt him.
Their provost tasked them with finding signs of outlaw bands ravaging the countryside, abducting villagers, the king asked him personally, he explained. “You are to go alone,” Fredrick instructed them that night, “and you are to listen, very carefully.” He refused to say anything else, and they knew better than to ask. The following day they investigated, in taverns, villages, talked with knight errants and local bands of watchmen guarding the peasants. The second instruction they received soon became clear.
Instead of doubt, he was filled with bitterness. There was a saying, the pursuit of knowledge is bound to drive one into madness, Gael never thought much of it, he was a scholar. That day however he found himself reflecting on a very similar question: could the pursuit in itself be madness?
They left at dawnbreak, and none of them expected that the search would drag on well into the night. A cold autumn wind blew fiercely from time to time during the day, sending waves through the thick chestnut sea of the fallen leaves. It was a truly special sight at sunset, if you didn't mind the rotting corpses that hanged nearabout.
Now they were walking under the cloak of darkness though, so it was just bloody cold.
He looked at his lamp, his only source of guidance that moonlit night. Fredrick always said that humanity is doomed to wander blindly in an endless night, and that truth is the only light to help us find our place in the world. His lamp was small however, and he felt lost. Maria beside him must've felt the same, her gaze was restless, jumpy even for the faintest of sounded, her homburg hat slightly shifting on her head.
"Should we head back?" he suggested.
Maria’s face softened as if breathing for the first time after rising from deep waters. Her high cheekbones loosened. Her jaw, clenched so tightly, released the tension. Something twitched in her eyes, and he knew her well enough to know she was relieved. Gael was certain their night was at its end.
Maria shrugged and the uncertainty swept from her eyes as if it was dust blown by the wind. Her gaze crystalized. "I will not return to Fredrick empty handed."
Gael agreed, and immediately felt ashamed for even asking.
A hour came, a hour went. He found it increasingly difficult to stay awake and began to snooze mid walking, tripping clumsily over every rock and large branch he chanced to encounter. Once he even bumped his head into a tree and Maria laughed her lungs out, it was a surprisingly pleasant sound.
As it turned out, there was a corpse hanging from that very tree. "I'll leave the honor to you." Without a moment’s delay she hopped to the foot of the tree and started to massage her sore legs.
He yawned and reluctantly went on with his task. A formality to satisfy their official report to their king. "This one's hanging pretty high," he observed. Maria buzzed a jolly tune, and removed her hat. She untied her pony-tail and let the raven locks fall on her shoulders. Gael wanted nothing more than lie by her side.
He cut the rope, leaned over the body and held his lamp close to its face. "Ah, this one's fresh."
His lamp did little good when he tried to examine the corpse. "Maria, your lamp." He stretched his hand towards her and took it. "Now that's better."
He covered his nose and watched closely. The man's face was black and reddish, and his body began to bloat, the lower part especially, if they arrived just a few days later the weight would've pulled his body from its neck. His skin turned greenish at some places, and maggots have settled in his belly. Gael found no evidence of violence, as expected.
Something was missing though. He scratched his head and looked around for a bit until his eyes met a very large log that was lying beside them. After some trial and error he managed to climb atop it and concluded that he may not have been high enough to reach the rope and hang himself, this man undoubtedly was.
"Surprise surprise, another suicide."
"Forty seven suicides to zero murders it is," she mumbled, “at the very least, Henry will know we were thorough.” Maria had made herself a habit of calling the king by his name,
By that point it was clear the investigation was futile. The suicides were nothing new either. After the disappearance of Yuria, choosing the Weeping Woods as a final resting place became a fashion for the suicidals. Simple Folk love nothing so much as they love a good story, Gael thought once, the queen is dead, and the forest is weeping, a simple story for simple folk. The corpses swinging in the wind, just another part to the story, and Gael was convinced that was exactly what they wished for.
It was all just a farce, they both knew. There wasn't a band of outlaws, or a gang of war deserters prowling the countryside. Gael was willing to bet Fredrick knew as much.
The night progressed, corpses were examined and mostly ignored. They kept walking in silence as each of them sunk into his own tiredness. Despite himself Gael wished that the trees would just start to tear around them.
Dawn finally broke, creeping at slow pace. The world was alive again, awaken under the golden paleness of the morning sun. Not long after, fog settled between the grey and partly naked sentinels of the forest, much like the day before. Then terribly sudden, something gripped his attention. Gael stopped dead in his tracks, not sure if he imagined what he saw.
"What's the matter?" Maria asked.
He didn't answer, instead he took a few steps back and looked on the ground and the light brown-orange blanket that covered it. Almost completely hidden, there was a glimpse of a bright blue color from under the leaves. He picked up the flower and gave it to Maria.
"The Flower of Yuria." She sniffed it, and smiled.
Later that morning they decided to have a short rest afoot one of the trees. They dined over what little food they had left, and Maria managed to pick a few mushroomed she claimed were safe to eat. A few words were said about how they shouldn't tarry too long. Maria fell asleep shortly after, trying to shield herself from the wind with her high-collar coat. Gael thought he should wake her up, but instead he himself dug as much as he could into his own coat, and slept.
When she woke him up the skies were traced with soft reddish clues of sunset. "Gael, Gael!" She shook him violently. He opened his eyes. "Listen..."
At first he heard nothing, just the regular wispy sounds of the forest. He rubbed his eyes and waited for the sleep to wear off. Then he heard something, a sobbing, weak and distant, as if rising from the depths of an abyss. It was a whimpering of an old man, heavy with sorrow. The queen is dead, and the forest his weeping. "Sobbing," he said, puzzled.
"Weeping," she corrected him. "Let's go."
They were in luck. A full moon hung high in the sky, and the naked forest was washed with pale silvery light. The sight of corpses dwindled quickly until there were no more bodies to be found. What started as a hushed sobbing became a chaotic melody of sounds, added layer after layer. Moans were coming from everywhere. Short and sharp screams startled them from out of nowhere, wailing, crying, at times he even thought he heard mumbling. Every sound was distinct in its texture, and they couldn't all possibly belong to a single being. Every sound came from nowhere and from everywhere all at once.
Gael realized he may be going insane.
It grew louder and louder as time passed. What was once a delicate cry grew into a fearsome and monstrous waves crashing onto a coast, and the once faint screams of agony made them duck now like the sudden crackling of thunder.
He could feel his heart beating at his chest violently, and Maria's grey eyes were thick with poisonous fear. Did you know, Fredrick? Why didn't you warn us?
The storm of sounds became insufferable, and the further they got, the more it seemed to resist them. Maria groaned, "my head..." Even shouting, her voice was heard only as the fading of an echo.
"Mine too." He could feel his pulse in his head so strongly it was as if someone hit him at the rhythm with a blacksmith's hammer. What are we supposed to find, Fredrick?
The Flowers of Yuria became a more frequent sight until they seemed to pop up everywhere. They grew on moss covered rocks, besides tall mushrooms with red topping, on thick and rotten tree branch, even on tree themselves. Gael was no botanist, but something at the back of his head told him that flowers do not behave like that.
He was busy trying to ignore the weeping, and wondering on the strange flower, that he did not even realize they were entering a clearing. When he noticed though, he became breathless.
He pulled Maria by her coat, realizing she probably had been staring at the ground for quite a while. She lifted her eyes, and her pupils grew so wide there was almost no color left in her eyes.
They stood at the rims of a large clearing, the ground around them mostly barren, spotted only with flowers.
In the middle of the clearing there was a thick, wild growth of Yuria's flower, forming a giant bush glowing in the moonlight like sapphires, reaching almost as high as a man's chest.
And within that bush, stood a figure, manlike, and his right hand was reaching upwards, stretching towards the heavens.
Deathly silent, they took careful, measured steps, and looked closer.
The figure stood still like a statue, yet it was somehow clear that it was a living being. Its skin was ghastly pale, milky, cracked and folded like some ancient tree with only a hint of clothing clinging to its dried and bony body. It looked up into the skies, mouth open, eyes filled with sheer terror, as if begging for the moon in mute appeal. Gael noticed that the strange flower even grew on its lower belly.
"What is that thing?"
Maria didn't answer.
They circled the being, studying it. Fredrick always taught them to search for the truth, but what was that truth, here? The queen is dead, and the forest is weeping, a lie.
He tried to peek closer, stepping a bit on the bush to examine the figure from up close. He looked to its face, a human face, frozen in agony.
Its left eye suddenly moved, spotting him.
A violent shiver went through his spine, and the world became dark. So dark.