Hikaru and I spent almost the entire first day walking through the seemingly endless forest, with a few rests in between. Luckily near the end of the day we found wild asparagus to eat, and were able to refill our flasks from a stream…but even so, my stomach still feels knotted. Even if Marc would scarcely allow me to eat, it was more than this…
“It’s starting to get dark,” he says at dusk. “Do you want to rest for the night?”
“Yes!” I heave. Though I tried not to focus on it, now the prospect of rest makes me fully realize how much pain I’m in. My legs, my lungs, my arms from constantly holding my bag…
Once we finally find a clear spot, I practically collapse upon the ground. In this moment, it feels so soft and heavenly, much more so than where we had slept previously; but, perhaps it is not actually better at all, and it is just my exhaustion that makes it feel so… Meanwhile, Hikaru gently sits upon the ground, seemingly having not even broken into a sweat.
“Are you okay?” he asks me, as I roll over onto my back.
“Y-yeah, yes! Just…exhausted.”
“I’m impressed, though,” he says. “You made it much farther today than I thought you would."
“Roughly how far are we now, from my…previous home?”
“Hmm…” for a minute, he scans our surroundings.
“About seven miles, I think.”
“Seven miles?!?” I shout, flabbergasted. But then, I close my eyes and merely moan. “Only seven miles, in a day and a half’s worth of travel…”
“But you’ve never had to walk so much, have you?” he asks.
“No, my servants always went out for shopping, and after a while I was hardly even allowed to leave,” I reply. “Occasionally I left, but…”
“Then seven miles is pretty good,” he says.
“How much do you typically walk in a day?”
“Uh, well,” he stumbles, “I normally don’t have any sort of destination in mind, so it varies wildly—"
“That is not what I asked.”
“…About twenty miles, if I walk the entire day. A bit more on a good day, less so on a bad one.”
“Twenty miles average?” I put my arm over my face, and sigh heavily. “Why have I done this to myself…”
As I groan, Hikaru lays down near the right of me, and looks towards my way, smiling sweetly.
“It’ll be fine,” he comforts me. “If you could carry me all the way from the forest to your home before, this isn’t that bad.”
“But, that was only one occurrence…”
“It’ll get easier,” he says while looking back towards the sky, and sighing. “When I first began wandering, I wasn’t particularly fast either.”
“I do not know if I can continue in this manner,” I whisper, so quietly I cannot tell if he even heard at all. “My legs feel like they are buzzing like bees. The idea of ever standing again sounds wretched,” I say with a laugh, realizing how pathetic I must truly sound.
“We don’t have to go as far tomorrow—we don’t even have to make any real progress at all. I think we’re far enough now that we’ll be safe, even if we rest for a while.”
“Are you certain?”
“…I’m not certain of much of anything, Suzette,” he whispers, somehow even more softly than I had. “I hope you can find patience for me too…this is also a bit new for me.”
“I thought you traveled all the time?”
“I do. Alone…”
“Do you truly think I am so incapable?”
“Not at all,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter how capable you are, if fate wills something ill…”
“I do not quite believe in fate,” I say while gazing at the ever-darkening sky. “It is terrifying in its own way, never knowing if you shall succeed or fail…but, at least we do not have fate working against us, yes?”
“Heh, maybe so.”
“So please…” I look towards him, and reach over and clasp his hand in mine. He flinches, seemingly startled by the gesture, but soon relaxes once more. “Let us both try to put our concerns behind us. Even if it is difficult or painful…” I add, noticing my very sore limbs.
“Yeah…I’d like that,” he grins, before putting his hands across his torso, and exhaling deeply. For a moment I merely look on as he closes his eye, and seemingly drifts off to sleep, hair softly shining under the moonlight.
For a time after, I look stare straight to the sky, nearly devoid of all thought. Yet, while I am incredibly tired, sleep still will not wash over me. So instead I focus my attention upon the thin waxing moon, slowly rising over the horizon…but after a while, as it seems I am wont to do, I become curious concerning something.
“Hikaru,” I softly speak, “Are you still awake?”
“I am,” he says clearly, as though he is not drowsy at all, like me.
“May I ask you a question?”
“Why are you so fond of the moon? With that necklace, and even your clothing being covered in violets and blues, like the night…” For a few minutes, he stays entirely silent.
“That’s…personal,” he says at last.
“Ah, I am sorry, I did not realize…” I sigh. Is everything too personal, with him?
“It is just,” I begin, attempting to explain myself, “I have always noticed it is the sun everyone most loves, and the moon and all its associations are condemned…truly I wonder why, considering how lovely it is.”
“You…you don’t know?” he asks. “You don’t know why people condemn the moon?”
“No? If it is related to the gods, well, I think you know I’m not terribly knowledgeable on such matters…”
“I suppose that explains a lot,” he says to himself, so softly I can barely hear it.
“Why do you say that?” I ask.
“Well…do you want to know why nobody praises Maiden Moon?”
“If you would like to share it,” I reply. Even if I do not literally believe in those stories, they can still be interesting nonetheless. And perhaps I can come to understand him slightly better…I thought we had known each other decently well before; yet, even though our journey has just begun, I now question all of that.
“Hmm…” he thinks, “Would you like the long version, or short?” I chuckle.
“I think we have plenty of time to spare,” I answer.
“In that case,” he begins, “It began back in the Old World—do you know that much about it?”
For a moment I ponder, recollecting hazy memories of dull lessons, which I believed would never be useful; although, I suppose even now they are not that useful…
“They say that is where humanity began before migrating to Asashi and Soleia, right? Although no one has yet to rediscover that land…”
“Indeed,” he answers. “Back then, the gods were much closer to us—not just Lady Sun, but all the gods. Maiden Moon was actually the most beloved of them all.”
“Then what had changed?”
“She had fallen in love with a member of her priesthood. But her beloved refused, for she knew a human and a goddess could never have an equal relationship…so Maiden Moon created a human body to inhabit and pretend to be an average human, and left the moon itself without a soul.”
“Did she ever return, then?”
“You would know if she didn’t,” he says. “The reason the Moon now has so many craters is because she left it as a corpse—and like all corpses, it began to rot away. Her family discovered this, and made sure she would never be able to so much as visit humans again.”
“So…is she is hated for abandoning her duty, as a goddess?”
“Pretty much, yeah.” It seems a tad ironic…I myself was so determined to not abandon my duty to my family and society, and yet now I am here. Am I no better than she? Then again, surely a goddess would do much for her worshippers, one would think. My own family merely wanted me for status, to propel upwards their own egos…right?
“Then why are you so fond of her, Hikaru?”
“That’s…” he pauses, and I deeply hope he does not add “personal” to that sentence. “It may sound strange to you, but I see much of myself within her.”
“Doing all that she could to be with her love…if I was in her situation, maybe I wouldn’t be better. And, I know what it’s like to be condemned by the world…”
“But, is white hair not so looked down upon because of her?” I inquire softly, a tad confused at his reasoning. At this, he laughs quietly.
“If white hair was my only worry, my life wouldn’t necessarily be easy…but, maybe there would be a bit less heartbreak. But…” I notice that by now, his voice is becoming rather hoarse. “There is nothing to be done about it now.”
“Is that so…” My voice drifts off, as my thoughts do as well. I wonder what he means by that; but the fact that he has shared this much seems a minor miracle. I may have already pushed him too much, so I will not continue to do so.
The next morning, I awake in precisely as much pain as I had feared—that is to say, very, very much. Just lifting myself from upon the ground seems a struggle, but it is so hard I can hardly stand to lay on it a moment longer. The thought of moving at all is wretched, never mind walking the whole day. Yet even so, I will never get anywhere, if I merely lounge around all the time…
Even if it is horrid, I must do this.
When I arise I find, to my surprise, that Hikaru is still sound asleep. I decide to take advantage and return to rest myself; yet, unfortunately it seems he does not sleep very deeply, as even the meager sound of my movement awakens him.
“Ah, sâ…lêzj, Suzette…” he greets me in a gravelly, exhausted voice. Even though he must always sleep this way, I cannot help but wonder if he is even used to it.
“Ashon bon!” I chime back to him. “When will you be ready to go?”
“Nnn…” he groans while sitting up, and stays there for a few moments, before speaking again. “Maybe in…an hour?”
“That is fine,” I reply, stifling back laughter. Yesterday he was wide awake and ready by the time I had awoken, so I merely assumed he was more collected when he awoke. It is quite amusing, seeing him so disheveled, hair an absolute mess; for the first time, I am truly glad to have shorn my own hair so short.
For a time, the two of us sit in silence, as he brushes his hair and I merely breathe in the scenery around me. Aside from a few short instances, normally I am too preoccupied within my own thoughts to truly appreciate what it around me…but in this instance, I notice just how wonderful it truly is out here.
One can feel the moisture in the air from all the dew, as the singing of dozens of birds resonate through the newly green trees. Now that I have grown more comfortable being away from that place, I can fully appreciate the loveliness to be found out here. After a while I close my eyes, and become lost within the birds’ chorus.
“Are you ready?” Hikaru asks, and I open my eyes to see he is fully composed now.
“Of course!” I reply excitedly, and go to get up quickly…before realizing my body won’t allow for that. After my time spent relaxing I had entirely forgotten about the pain, and assumed it had gone away…but unfortunately, it is very much still here. So instead of cheerily hopping up, instead I lift myself slowly, with a groan. And even after I stand, I still stumble a little.
“Suzette…are you feeling okay?”
“Oh, I am fine!” I attempt to brush it off, but it is rather clear I am not fine. “I feel better now, then I had last night…I think I am already growing used to this.” It is a lie, but I do not want to always appear so weak…
“Well…” he says, looking about us, “Maybe we should still go a tad more slowly today, just to be sure.” I sigh…although I do not want to admit it, that is absolutely what I desire.
“At least it is lovely out today,” I reassure myself, aloud. “Surely that should make our journey more pleasant, yes?”
“That’s the spirit!” he exclaims eagerly, and I find myself stunned at the change in his usually rather monotonous voice. But in an instant, I feel myself overcome with ease, even in spite of the arduous journey ahead.
And with that the two of us resume our journey once more, deeper into the wilderness than even before.
For a few hours he and I walk at a rather leisurely pace, enjoying the spring scenery. Eventually we come across some wild asparagus to eat, and I cannot help but wonder if that is all we shall eat on this journey…but, at least we are finding food, and he did not even have to “ask” for it this time.
“Do you want to rest for a little while?” Hikaru asks me around midday.
“If you would like, although I am feeling well,” I reply, genuinely this time. Although I remain slightly fatigued, the pain is not so horrid at the moment.
“There’s something I need to look over,” he says. “We may need to adjust our route…”
“Well…I can show you,” he says, pulling a worn, folded paper from within his bag. He soon unfolds it, revealing an entire map of Soleia. On closer inspection, I notice something about it…
“Did you create this yourself?”
“I’ve had some help—but mostly, yes.” For a minute I merely look upon it in awe, at all the details. Towns, as well as forests, mountains, and rivers all extensively recorded…it is no wonder he is able to navigate so easily. He must have spent quite a long time creating this…
“It is beautiful,” I say under my breath. “I had not any idea you could draw so well.” He laughs.
“You say that as though you don’t sketch all the time.”
“Only to plan what I bake,” I say.
“And I just do this to know where everything is.”
“Perhaps we have something in common…” I reply absentmindedly, looking over the map. I notice that high in one of the northern provinces, there is a rather large circle, compared to the other landmarks upon the map…and suddenly, I grow worried.
“Hikaru, that dot…” I say, pointing to it, “Is that where your home lies?”
My heart sinks. It is so incredibly far away; perhaps two-thousand miles or more…how long will this journey be?
“Hmm…” he mumbles to himself, “This may be an issue.”
“What is wrong?”
“Do you see that small strip of forest north of here?” I squint, trying to find what he is referencing. Eventually I do, yet it appears that it can scarcely be called a “forest,” for it is long, yet so very narrow. Once I see its name, however, I am given a hint as to why he is worried: Florêt Folwêkhdin. The Forbidden Forest.
“Why must it have such an ominous name? I do not believe I have even heard of such a place…”
“It’s partially called that because it’s illegal to enter,” he says.
“…Illegal to enter?”
“Yes, most of it is fenced off, and normally it can only be traveled through by the river that runs through it.” As he says this, suddenly an old forgotten memory makes itself known within my head once more.
When I was young and traveled north, at a certain point we transferred to a ferry to traverse through a particularly wild wood. Never did I question this, as I was merely a child, but now that he brings this up…
“I believe I have been on the ferry there before, now that you mention it,” I say to him.
“If you’ve been to Solzédniê before, then you definitely have,” he replies.
“So, shall we be taking the ferry, then?”
“…That’s the issue,” he says with a sigh. “It’s…very expensive. Exorbitantly so. Only aristocrats and business men can ride upon it easily…”
“I see…” I say, pondering. “Then we can merely go around?”
“We can, but…it will set us back. A lot.”
“A few weeks, at least…” I inspect the map more closely, and to my horror see he is correct. It is so long and winding, reaching almost to the eastern edge of Soleia…we would have to travel all around, just to merely travel to the west to reach the strip of land that connects to the north.
In more simplistic terms, it is a mess.
“Then—” I pause, questioning if I truly want to say what is on my mind. Never before would I say something like this, but perhaps this journey is already beginning to change me…
“Why can we not just traverse through it?” I suggest. “Unless it is always fully guarded, perhaps we could sneak in—and, surely the penalty for being there would not be too harsh.” The thought of going against the law sounds terrifying, and yet already I have begun so many terrifying things, it almost sounds exciting…and it is not like it would harm anyone.
“I don’t know what the punishments for entering are,” he says. “But sadly…it is shut off for a good reason.”
“Is it the king’s private land?” He chuckles.
“It’s probably amongst the only strips of land in all of Soleia that he doesn’t own.” What is that meant to mean…?
“Why is that?” I ask softly.
“It will surely sound ridiculous to you…” he says, voice trailing off. Surely, this is not about—
“The fae,” he continues, “Are particularly active there.”
Ah, so this is about that…
“Like in the old tales?” I ask, “Where faeries play tricks on humans?”
“Something like that,” he replies. “In that forest, they have a peculiar manner of doing it, however…usually they lull you to sleep, and play tricks on you in your dreams.”
“For what reason does that warrant the entire forest to be barred? That does not sound particularly dangerous.”
“They say the worst events that have happened is—supposedly, at least—some people had such horrific nightmares that it drove them to suicide, or worse…”
…Or worse? Worse than suicide?!?
While I am certainly still skeptical in regard to this faerie business, the fact that the crown feels it a threat enough to make it off-limits… Then again, the royal family is still particularly superstitious, even now still considering themselves the clergy of Lady Sun; although admittedly, I have always assumed it is to placate the masses. But perhaps, there truly is genuine belief on their part…
“It’s not always so bad,” Hikaru says. “Sometimes it’s said they give you wonderful dreams you never wish to wake up from. Of course, in turn this causes some to never wake up and stay within their dreams forever, but…”
“That does not sound any better,” I mumble.
“Yes, but,” he says, “In my experience they are not always cruel. Sometimes they give one the ability to see the fae, or visions of previous lives, or—”
“In your experience—seeing the fae? Is that where you…gained that ability?”
“…Yes, it is.”
“So then…” I pause. “Do you truly believe all those tales about the forest? Of suicide, or sleeping for eternity…?”
“I’m inclined to,” he says, “But of course I can only know from my own experience. It appears as though they do not merely play tricks randomly, but unfortunately I don’t really know what their logic is…”
“But, I thought you said you could communicate with faeries…”
“Well,” he says, “Just because you can speak to one another doesn’t mean they’ll reveal all their intentions to you. Just like humans.” I suppose that is logical enough…
“I don’t know,” he continues, “If we should cut through the woods, or go around it.”
“How long would it take to go through the forest?”
“Perhaps a day at most,” he answers. “It’s extraordinarily narrow, but sadly extraordinarily long as well…”
I scrutinize the map, thinking over the predicament.
One day, against numerous weeks—should not the answer be obvious? And yet those stories, and the fact that it is illegal to traverse through…
But, I should not let myself be deterred by silly superstitions. And even if all of this truly is real, apparently Hikaru lived to tell the tale. So, in spite of whatever rumors there may be…
“I want to go through it,” I state.
“Are you sure?”
“It would seem you survived all right,” I say. “I am sure we shall be fine!” He smiles.
“Yes, you’re right,” he says, voice shaking slightly. “I’m sure we will be.”
His clear concern, in turn, concerns me; but, I can hardly fathom why. They are just stories, yes? He believes in such things, and perhaps he is right. But even so, I will not let some trees halt my dream any longer than it must be—I was already foolish enough to do that so much already.
Regardless of what he says, what that man says, what society says, what the king himself may say—I will follow my heart no matter what.
Nothing will shift that.
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