The Forgotten King – Chapter 8, Part 2
December 29, 2018
The sky cleared just before the sun set that evening. The weather was becoming more erratic the farther north they moved, alternating between clouds and sun, moon and rain. They found a small cluster of trees that had managed to stay dry through the day’s showers. It was surprising how much distance they had covered that day and they were exhausted. They ate a monotonous supper of bread and apples, then debated whether or not to organize a watch-cycle. Siri was uncertain about the idea and Helen doubted to herself that Siri would warn them of danger. In the end, they hoped the sound of anyone approaching would wake them—Ian was on a horse, after all—and they went to sleep.
In the middle of the night, Helen awoke suddenly, feeling like she had fallen from a dream she couldn’t remember. Above her, the moonlight was falling through the leaves of the trees, tinting everything in silvery white. A few nightingales sang here and there, and the grass swished gently in the chilling breeze, but there was nothing that might have disturbed Helen’s sleep. Feeling wide awake and wondering why, she threw her bag over her shoulder and got to her feet, then stepped into the clearing, being careful not to snap any twigs or disturb loose pebbles.
She knew she should be afraid, but she felt a sense of relief when she saw a man walking towards her—the same man she had seen that morning. He was closer now and she knew for sure that he wasn’t Ian. He took long strides, but didn’t appear to be in a hurry. The hood of his cloak hid most of his face from view. Helen waited until he came closer.
He was only a couple of yards away when Helen began to doubt that he was actually coming to her. Part of her thought he might not be real. She soon realized that he intended to walk right past her, as though he hadn’t seen her at all. But she longed to speak with him, to learn where he came from, who he was, and if he knew the way to Larisa. Perhaps he was a wanderer from Stephen and Meira’s city. Whoever he was, his manner and posture exuded security and safety.
“Please, sir,” Helen said as loudly as she dared. “May I walk with you?”
The man stopped and turned to her with no hint of surprise. He pulled the hood of his cloak off his head and Helen found herself looking into the kindest face she had ever seen, a face that was both young and old at the same time. His eyes were a shade of deep blue that she had never seen before. It was hard to tell if the mouth was smiling, but she believed it was. The man stood confidently, yet humbly, as though he were both a governor and a governor’s most insignificant servant at the same time. He took no time to consider her question, but nodded as though he had been waiting for it. “Of course,” he said.
“Do you know this land well?” Helen asked as they walked.
“Yes,” the man answered, and his kind, strong voice sent a warm shiver through Helen. “I know it very well.”
“My companion—companions—and I are going north, but we’re not really sure where to go. Can you help me?” Speaking with this man felt unusual, almost unnatural, to Helen. It was as though she had split herself into two, one part knowing this man was a stranger while the other felt that he was her oldest friend. She could easily have been talking to Neil.
“Perhaps. What are you looking for?”
“We’re looking for King Zaric,” she stated, with a small degree of uncertainty in her voice. She wondered if the man, despite his kindness, knew anything about Zaric.
“Are you unsure?”
“No, but it’s more complicated than that.”
“Finding Zaric isn’t very complicated.” His statement contained no doubt, which was reassuring.
“You know about Zaric?”
“Yes. But not many people do anymore.”
“And yet he’s the only one who can save us from Mered. Isn’t that true?”
“Zaric can do anything he needs to do, that’s true, but that doesn’t mean the people will accept him. Unwanted help could cause even more damage.”
Conversing with this man made Helen aware of her own inadequacy, an inadequacy stronger than what she felt with Siri. This man was wiser than she in ways she had never considered. She discovered from his simple words that she didn’t really know what she was looking or hoping for, if she was trying to find Zaric or only running from Mered, trying to escape the things she was afraid of.
“We need to find Larisa,” she said humbly, “and in order to find Larisa, we need to find the keys to the barrier that blocks it from the rest of the world.”
“You are trying to find Larisa,” the man said, “because you need the people of Larisa in order to overcome Mered. Isn’t that true?”
“Yes,” Helen replied, after a moment of thought. “I’ve never thought of that before. The stories never told us much about the people themselves. Only that they believe in and follow Zaric.”
“So you know the stories,” the man said with a half-smile. “The keys will open the way to Larisa, not to Zaric. What is your name?”
“Helen, I think you know fairly well what Zaric and his people can do for you. Have you ever considered what you can do for them?”
“We can open the gateway,” Helen replied, but the expression on the man’s face told her that it wasn’t the answer he was looking for.
“After that,” he stated.
They walked on, stepping out of the clearing and into the trees. This part of the forest wasn’t very dense, allowing the moonlight to drench its trees and floor. The birds were now singing a much sweeter song, and the breeze that before was blowing coldly had turned warm.
“Do you come from Larisa?” Helen asked. The man didn’t say anything in reply. “Where are we going?” she continued.
“I never said we were going anywhere,” he said with a slight chuckle. “You only asked if you could walk with me.”
Helen felt foolish and her cheeks warmed, but the man gave her a reassuring look. It was impossible for her to be angered or offended by him, even if she felt she should be. They went a few more paces, then stopped at the base of a maple tree that looked out of place among the white aspens. It was an odd tree. All of the lower branches had been broken off, and the closest branch to the ground was quite a few feet over Helen’s head. That branch itself stood alone, and the next one after that was about the length of a man higher up the tree. Some of the breaks were new, and some were considerably older.
“What happened here?” Helen asked.
The man again remained silent, peering up into the tree. The shadows of the leaves made it more difficult to see anything in the tree itself from the ground. Helen wondered what had caught the man’s attention and gazed up. There were no birds or animals of any kind visible and nothing else stood out to her. Opening her eyes a little wider, she made out the shape of something familiar, but not something anyone would notice easily from the ground. A few branches above the second branch, she thought she could see the small shape of a bird’s nest.
“Do you think you could climb to that?” the man asked her, pointing into the tree.
“The nest?” Helen asked in return. For the first time, the thought occurred to her that this man could be using her for his own purposes. Yet he hadn’t exactly sought her out and she still didn’t feel uncomfortable.
“If I could get onto that bottom branch, I probably could, it’s just a matter of actually getting into the tree.”
“I can help you,” he stated. “If you will trust me.”
“Even though I feel I shouldn’t, I do trust you. I’m just not really sure I trust myself. Once I get into the tree, I’ll probably fall. I’m apparently not the first to try.”
“But you can try.”
“Yes, I can try,” she agreed after a brief pause. Then, after an even longer pause, she went on, “I will try, if it’s necessary. But it’s only a nest.”
“Just as you’re only a woman. And yet, you’ve managed to do some extraordinary things, haven’t you? Trust me and I’ll help you.”
Helen hesitated for a minute, wondering what extraordinary things this man knew she had done. “What’s in that nest, anyway?” she asked, shaking off the thought.
“I’m not sure you’ll believe me if I say. If you climb to it, you’ll see. Will you?” Helen pursed her lips as she thought about this. The thought came to her mind of how strange it was to be standing in the forest in the middle of the night with a man she had never met before, looking into a tree and considering climbing it, just to see what was in a bird’s nest. She tried to push this thought away. It wouldn’t be the first strange thing she had done and she would be naive to think it would be the last. In resignation, she nodded her head and tried not to think about all of the broken branches.