They awoke the next morning, tense yet eager to complete the deed. By late afternoon, they passed a looming mountain; a few miles farther and they were gazing at what Garrion assured them was the tree line of the Eld Forest.
Even in the lengthening shadows, it was a disappointing sight. The fabled forest was not large, verdant, or even mysterious. In fact, it looked like the type of spot where one might piss.
“This is the Eld Forest? Ha!” William relaxed, laughing derisively. His laughter was answered by a shrieking bird to their right. “Sacred to the Elyon because no one else wants it!”
“Precisely,” agreed Lord Ondred. “The tale of the sacred forest, as well as this sikestra business, was no doubt invented by a shrewd group of robbers who sought to keep their hiding place secure. It has long been my opinion that most of our treasured beliefs spring from practical necessity or, in this case, simple avarice and greed.”
The men received this in nervous silence but for Anjhest, who gave a laugh. Even so, their mood lightened considerably and that night much wine was consumed; they fell asleep listening to Gerlatch’s misadventures with a prize bull.
They awoke bleary-eyed and thirsty. Perri was sent to fetch water while the men relieved themselves. The tree line was now plainly in view. The morning light did nothing to heighten its appearance. It looked even less promising than the night before.
“Ive heard stories of the Eld Forest since I was a child,” commented Gerlatch. “Are you sure this is it?”
“Well, there is the rock,” said Garrion, pointing.
A large, white rock stood out clearly against the tree-line, indicating sikestra, or sacred spot. Each sikestra was marked by one. After the garden was defiled, it was said that the Elyon would not be robbed of more land and so he chose these locations, twelve in all, placing a similar white stone in each. Those who’d seen the stones at close range reported dry rivulets coursing over their surface, rumored to be the stain of Tianne’s tears.
“The forest appears to be comprised mainly of sycamores and scrub pines,” observed Ondred. “The only remaining mystery is why the bandits would chose such a hiding place.”
William frowned. As usual, Ondred was right, but, dammit, his head hurt. The forest before him was a paltry thing, hardly more than a thicket. A shaft of light broke through the trees and he fancied he could see through to the field on the other side. William coughed bile from his throat and squinted. The men about him were cowards save for Ondred, whose worth he couldn’t determine. Last night’s profundities now seemed a noisome buzzing in his ears. The bird too seemed negotiable. William remembered its slightness, the loud, undignified squawks. Suddenly, the sun was too bright, the wine sour, and the matter trifling. He spoke sharply to his falconer.
“Do you have the nets ready?”
“Yes, Highness,” Garrion replied.
William spurred his horse, and the others followed.