Aphelion Issue 221, Volume 21
September 2017
 
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The Ghosts of Barafel

by Rory Angus



Ever since his son was old enough to walk, Kenin had been troubled by the boy. Pon did not play well with the other children. He seldom laughed. He had few friends. All of Kenin's efforts to impress upon his son the virtues of work and play had failed, falling on indifferent ears, and Kenin had never had the heart to beat the boy, even when the folk of Barafel made subtle suggestions that he should do so. Perhaps Kenin had wanted his son to know that one person, at least, did not mean him any harm. All of the townsfolk muttered about Pon. This was troubling to Kenin, but it was not what really frightened him. What had always truly frightened the new mayor of Barafel was when his young son ran off every day - starting as soon as he could walk - to stand at the town's western border which was marked by no fence, river, or wall. His son would stand at the top of the hill before the forest, just where the land began to fall away. Into the forest the little boy would peer, between the trunks of trees often shrouded in mist. Pon would point and talk, babbling on and on as he stared into the woods. Kenin never saw anyone waiting among the evergreens and the mist, when, day after day, he ran to drag his son away from the border. As Pon grew, his speech improved, and Kenin's son would stand at the edge of the woods and carry on conversations with people no one else could see. Kenin sometimes worried that his son was mad, but that thought scared him less than the other possible explanation.

The town of Barafel had been a large, rich town tucked within the sheltering arm of the Willow River. The river wound nearly all the way around the town, only breaking away its grasp at the doorstep of the forest to the west. The willow trees all around the riverbank that gave the river its name drooped down, their slender arms covered in tendrils of pale green leaves, and with their willow-arms they swept along the surface of the river. It had been pleasant, once upon a time, to take a boat down the river, pushing the hanging branches aside with the insistent prow of the vessel, writing poetry, fishing idly in the river, singing songs. Kenin still remembered going down the river in a fair spring that was so distant, both in time and nature, as to seem unreachable: he in the little wooden boat, and his darling wife Elira, and their son Pon who was then only an infant swaddled in his mother's arms. Kenin found it hard to believe that the sun still shone as brightly in the sky, in distant places, as it had shone in that memory of the river. Compared to the world he woke and lived in, every night and day, that afternoon on the riverbank was a perfect moment, unspoiled by time, frozen forever in a golden beauty. It seemed like a vision from another world, or perhaps a moment from somewhere one comes to after their time in the world is over.

A few years later, Elira drifted down the river, alone in a wicker boat built just for her, still pale from the sickness, with flowers twined in her hair.

A few years after that, the Karazans came.

Kenin and his surviving warriors ran up the darkened streets, past the many abandoned houses, farther up the hill. Ahead and above them loomed the spire of the temple of Barafel, grand and beautiful beneath the moon, and Kenin could not help but think of the precious treasure guarded within. The warriors of Barafel would have gladly given their lives to defend it, if there was any longer a chance of saving it in battle. There was no longer a chance, now that fate had turned against them. They were tired, and some were bleeding, yet on the survivors ran, drawing ragged, rapid breaths, through a town soon to be consumed and lost. The moonlight swept down on them as they ran up the hill of Barafel, away from the smoke and the fires which had not yet come high enough to envelop the hill. The fallen gates of Barafel were far below them now. The world was still pretty, beyond the town, and there was still some magic to the endless night around them, but little time could be spared for such thoughts. Though the clouds above were thick and dark, the moon sailed placidly through an empty swath of sky as though over a vast and darkened road disturbed only by the crowding stars. As the hill rose, it narrowed and distanced itself from the land below, and the few fortunate surviving warriors seemed to be running through a world at once shrinking and rising. All the land was revealed below them: the great whole of the world, running off asleep into the nighttime distance beyond all thought of armies and fallen walls. Both of the gates were great fires burning, and when Kenin looked into the town below he saw the dark waves of the Karazan host assembling in the streets, and he thought he might have seen a few furtive figures dashing through the lower parts of the town as if pursued. Nothing could be done to aid them now.

Enough torches still burned from the gates of the temple and from the courtyard within to cast a good and honest light over the street before the temple. The few guards posted outside, alarmed at the sight of Kenin and his men dashing towards them, lowered their halberds but did not speak. Perhaps they were prepared for a final stand to protect the precious treasure guarded in the church, but soon enough Kenin and his men came into the light of the torches and the identity of the newcomers was revealed.

"Councillor!" cried the foremost guard. "How fares the battle?"

"The town is lost, Mellen," Kenin said, as he halted to catch his breath. He saw the terror in the faces of the guards, but quickly spoke to drive such thoughts from them. "Do not delay now; let us in. I must speak to everyone."

The guards hastened to draw back the great iron doors that guarded the inner courtyard of the temple. With a creak the doors swung inward to reveal the clear and peaceful courtyard of the temple in Barafel. Kenin and his men, brisk and upright, strode through the doors, and the two guards remained at their post, turning once again to face the town beyond and below. Inside the courtyard the air was moonlit, with soft, pale light shining down from the great opening in the centre of the vaulted ceiling. Ornamental plants decorated the outside of the courtyard, and sheets of cloth, once fine and now neglected, hung from the rafters that crisscrossed the open ceiling, but nothing could interrupt the path of the innumerable and indistinguishable moonbeams.

Through the moonlight Kenin strode, and his surviving men followed in his wake. They went right for the closed door of the temple, and the guards posted at the door stood silent and alert at their approach. The guards at the inner door stood aside to let them through, and so Kenin and his men crossed over the threshold of the temple of Barafel and came into the presence of the precious treasure guarded within.

Around the pillars that held up the roof, and over the wide, open floor, and hiding in the shadows, were many women and children and such men as could not fight. All of the fear and hope was gathered there as Kenin came in to meet them. Every eye turned to him; every voice was silenced, and every ear was tuned to his voice and his voice alone. Kenin paused before the treasure of Barafel. He took a deep breath. He spoke with true courage, even if it was only felt by himself alone. The town had fallen. Their only choice was to run, but the path of their escape was far more in need of courage than the battle had ever been.

"The town has fallen," Kenin said, wishing to spare them the agony of waiting. To forestall the cries of fear that might arise from that announcement, he quickly continued: "Do not fear!" and his strong voice held them all together, kept their fear in check, kept them anchored to order by the force of his presence among them. "I will lead us from this place. There is nothing more for us in Barafel. We must leave, and we shall all leave together now."

They all rose together and crowded around him, questioning, wondering. Kenin's men spread out among the crowd, keeping order, as men and women and children rose from their seats or came forward to gather in the middle of the room in the Temple of Barafel. They stared at him with frightened eyes, and clutched their meager belongings. How strange it was, Kenin thought, staring at the people gathered before him, that this was the greater part of Barafel. This was what had made the town so great, but with the fruits of their labor taken from them they did not seem as great as the town. They seemed such a smaller thing. Barafel could perish, and if these people remained, the greater part of it would be saved, but without the people …

"Where can we go?" they asked. Surely, they all knew the answer, unless they had put it from their minds for so long that they had truly forgotten.

"To the forest, I fear," Kenin said, and though he spoke sadly and softly, his voice carried across the crowd. "We must pass through the haunted forest to our freedom." He closed his eyes for the briefest of moments, seeking some shelter in the darkness that was suddenly wrapped around him, as the babble of the frightened crowd rose and grew in his ears. There was no use in hiding. He could not hide from this.

Kenin opened his eyes. He was aware of a conversation occurring behind him, between the guards at the door and his own men. If the Karazans had not yet realised where everyone had gone, if they were still searching through the houses in the lower part of town which Kenin could only hope to be abandoned, the deception would not last for very long. They might even now be moving up the road towards the temple. Kenin and his men would hold them off, but they could not do so forever. Without Kenin to guide the people through the woods, none of them would survive. Not because Kenin was so necessary, but because another among them was so necessary, and Kenin was necessary only through that single soul. Kenin left the guards and his soldiers at their whispered discussion. Into the crowd he plunged, and even as some of the townsfolk crowded around him to question him and forced him to push them aside, others were calmly getting all of their things together, and determining what they could and could not bring, sure that their councillor would not lead them astray. Kenin felt their desperate hopes weighing heavily on his shoulders. It was a reassuring weight. He did not call out the name he sought. If the guardians of the one he looked for saw him approaching, they would understand. Kenin pushed through the crowd until he saw a woman who held a young boy close to her. The eyes of the young boy were dark, and they did not brighten as Kenin approached, but beheld Kenin coming near with the coolness and peace of the night. Yet as Kenin approached, his son looked up at the tall, broad man who towered overhead, and the boy said:

"Are we going to see the ghosts, father?"

Kenin's breath caught in his throat. He embraced his son and held him close.

"Yes, Pon," he said. He found it hard, suddenly, to speak. "I will need your help tonight, little one."

Now for some reason unknown to mortals yet known and decreed by the far away gods who dwell beneath the earth and sea and up among the many stars, the host of Karaz assembled in the lower part of the town before beginning its march upon the temple. The townsfolk gathered out in the cold night, some shivering, many afraid, some few carrying torches which they did not yet light. Kenin stood at the edge of the hilltop, where the air was cool and clear, and he stared down in hatred at the dark hosts gathered among the fire and the smoke and the ruin they had brought to Barafel. There were bodies abandoned down there; people of Barafel who had not even been properly laid to rest on the Willow River, as was the custom in the town. It was like staring into a vast, vile pit. From the summit of the hill Kenin stared down at the army of Karaz, and in that moment he wished he had some weapon with which to strike back at them and scourge them entirely from the earth. Of course, he had some weapons. He had his passion, and his arm, and a blade, and others still with him had the same, but Kenin knew now that he could not throw away all hope of the salvation of his people in some dark and hopeless sortie of vengeance. With a private and titanic effort Kenin turned away from the horde below, away from his wish to do battle with them, away from his darker dreams. His men followed him as he walked back to the waiting crowd.

"Can you imagine why they have halted?" Maxas asked, looking back over his shoulder. The guard captain was tall and blonde and lean, and his face had an angular, handsome aspect.

"I reckon they fear the temple," Barok said, stout and broad and middle-aged. He waved at the spire that, so close by, towered over everything. "They fear that our patron god Lapos will strike them down if they venture against it before they are fullest in strength."

"I had not thought of that," Maxas admitted, staring again with worry at the hosts assembled below. "Yet it makes good sense, my friend. Perhaps the Karazans prepare some dark magic to strike at the spire of the temple and cast it down. We should be gone before that happens."

"We will be gone," Kenin said. "It matters little why the Karazans have halted. We can count it among our few and scattered blessings. Can I depend upon the two of you in the dangers ahead of us?" They spoke together, separate from the crowd, with only the loyal ears of a few other soldiers around them. Many were not really soldiers, but men taken from the town. They were able-bodied men given weapons and what little armour there was for them. They were men who had, whether by strength of arms or strength of spirit, or from the favour of fortune alone, survived the last few days and nights. The others who had fallen had fallen too quickly for even their bodies to be sent down the river, as was custom in Barafel.

"Without reservation, sir," Maxas said simply, and Kenin looked into his face and saw the truth of his words.

"As if I would be afraid of the forest!" Barok exclaimed, and chuckled. "To confess, sir, I've never believed in it." The other men did not laugh, and before their silence Barok's chuckle died away. Slowly, his smile faded as well, and his face, because Barok was not a man to feel fear, became once more warlike and grim.

"You should learn to believe, Barok," Kenin said quietly. "It is the safest course."

Kenin looked ahead and saw his son standing near the edge of the crowd. Kenin walked through the crowd to meet his boy. Pon was short for his age, and thin, and very pale. He had hair far darker than Kenin's. It came from his mother. Kenin was relieved to see that Pon was not whispering to something no one else could see--not at the moment, at least. Kenin knelt, and clapped his son on the shoulder, being very gentle, as he had learned to be, with his strange, quiet son. For a moment Kenin could find nothing to say, and so Pon's gaze turned back to the forest in the distance.

"Stay beside me, boy," Kenin said, more roughly than he meant, and he rose and cast his eye back across all his gathered people.

"You are saddened to leave your homes!" He called to them, and they fell silent in the darkness, listening: women, children, the elderly, the ill and the wounded, those few warriors who had survived. "I know you do not wish to abandon your town. It may seem that we flee only into greater danger. Yet I believe that if we all stay together, we will find our way to safety. Our fate will not be decided for us by the butchers of Karaz! Follow me now, people of Barafel! Listen to the words of your guardians. We must take care to stay together, once we reach the trees." Holding his son's pale hand, Kenin led his people through the night.

There were only a few buildings between the temple of Barafel and the edge of the forest. Those few buildings were humble and unadorned, and now abandoned and unlit. At the first news that the Karazans were pressing in upon their borders, the clerics of Lapos, who was the patron god of Barafel, had fled the town while some escape could still be made. This was why the Karazans' likely fear--that the patron god would strike against those who sought to destroy his guarded town--was groundless, for Lapos had certainly turned away from those who no longer worshipped him.

The slow train of townsfolk wound down between the few remaining buildings, guarded by the vanguard of the soldiers in front, shepherded on by the soldiers following behind. The fleeing townsfolk were quiet, and they cast frightened glances all around them. Occasionally they spoke softly to one another. Their feet pattered softly on the dirt between the buildings, for they disdained all roads in their flight. Kenin looked all around and saw nothing dangerous waiting for them. The Karazans might yet be making their way up the hill, however, and time was of the essence. The night was quiet, but the smoke from the fires of the town below had finally reached the hill, and the clouds of smoke drifted up into the air. The people of Barafel, or at least those few who thought to gaze up into the night, saw that no matter how fearsome the fires that grew from beauty burnt by the evil of men, no smoke from those fires, even from the greatest of those fires, could ever hope to obscure the distantly shining stars.

So with those stars looking down on them and perhaps blessing their flight, the townsfolk of Barafel left the shelter of the last of the buildings of the town and they came out into the open, unmarked ground at the top of the great barren hill before the Haunted Forest. The trees began a mere dozen paces away. The first of them sprouted from the ground. Its thin branches were heavy with evergreen needles, but the branches did not bend from the weight. The night was not overly dark, with the moon now shining brightly on everyone on the hilltop. The faintest suggestions of the dawn brought a lightness to the eastern horizon, yet the moonlight did not pierce fully into the spaces between the trees, and it seemed that it was not only the canopy of the forest that prevented the moonlight from shining through. There was a kind of darkness there that came and went between the trees, a shadow--cast by an unearthly light--that lurked among the straggly trees.

Pon, at least, did not seem troubled. Kenin, his heart sinking, felt the boy tugging insistently at his coat and his arm. Without a word spoken between them, Kenin released his son, who walked forward, small and alone, yet unafraid, to stand at the edge of the haunted forest. Pon stood there for a moment, and no one spoke loudly, though Kenin heard a few mutters from the crowd which were not loud enough for him to hear. He was glad that they were not loud enough for him to hear, for if he had understood them he was not sure what he would have done. The little figure stood there, ahead of everyone else, staring into the woods. Pon swayed back and forth, and Kenin's breath caught in his throat from the fear that Pon would suddenly walk forward and vanish into the trees. He had always lived with that fear, though in all the times he had ever had to run and grab his son and drag the strange little boy away from the border of the forest, Pon had never tried to move past the border. Now, however, if Pon ran forward, Kenin would not be able to chase him without leaving his people alone. He would have to choose between them, and he was not sure of the choice he would make.

The forest lurked: still, silent, and inanimate. Kenin had heard stories, from time to time, of people who strayed into the forest and survived, but he had heard just as many stories of people who had gone in and never returned. Certainly, nothing had ever come out of the forest in many years.

As Kenin waited for some signal, for a sign from his boy that the way ahead was clear, the trail of his thought ran back to a much earlier memory: to a heated argument in the meeting hall on the hill below the temple.

"The western border must be secured!" Aphos shouted, in Kenin's memory. The previous leader of the town was an intimidating man, with a devious mind and an imposing manner--but Kenin faced him down, for too much was at stake to allow fear.

"We can build the wall twice as strong on the east, in front of the river, if we leave the western side alone," Kenin said calmly. A council of the most powerful folk of Barafel had gathered in the town meeting hall, the long, low structure that lay a little farther down the hill from the temple. A great wooden window in the ceiling was thrown open, letting in a great beam of sunlight that slanted in on the dais where Kenin and Aphos, among others, argued. Through the open window, Kenin could see the spire of the temple above them at the top of the hill of Barafel.

"The armies of Karaz are near-certain to come from the east," Kenin continued. "Are we to devote as much effort to the western fortifications as to the east?"

"They are most likely to approach from the east," Aphos conceded, "but there must be something in the west to hold them at bay."

"What will there be, then, Aphos?" Kenin asked, staring around at the crowd in an appeal to them. "Will there be a paltry barrier, made of whatever scraps of work and material we do not dedicate to the river wall? If so, we might as well never build it. If you are so certain that the armies of Karaz can pass through the forest, what use is a token defence? I suggest," he said, for the fifth time, addressing the rest of the hall, "that we leave the forest alone. Its reputation itself will serve as a barrier. We can hold the armies of Karaz at the Willow, until the forces of our Lord Misterial arrive. We might do this, if we put all of our efforts to the eastern border."

"The Karazans do not follow our superstitions," Aphos said, through clenched teeth. "You put your faith in stories they are not stupid enough to believe, Kenin. If we do not secure the forest border, the enemy will come through behind us!"

"Good!" Kenin cried, his temper giving way. "I hope they all travel through the haunted woods, to be eaten alive by the ghosts!"

Kenin came back from his recollections. He walked forward slowly, yet gained in speed with each heavy step until he towered over his son. Kenin ruffled the boy's hair.

"Will you help us, boy?" he asked, and looked up briefly at the forest, as if hoping to see something among the darkness and the waiting trees.

"Of course, father."

"Will you guide us among the ghosts to safety?" Kenin asked, looking into his son's dark eyes. "If you do this, you must do it well. You cannot make a single mistake."

The son's face lit up into a smile which warmed the father's heart.

"A game?" Pon exclaimed. "Oh papa, I will not make a single mistake--I promise!"

"All right, then," Kenin said, smiling back for his son's sake, and he looked back at his people gathered to wait for his words to lead them on. "Come on, everyone," he said, at last. "My son will guide us on."

Though many of the townsfolk hastened forward, there were a few dissenting murmurs, and a greater number of people who were silent but stayed put and did not move at all. Kenin's heart grew hard; he clenched his fists, seized by a sudden anger.

"If you do not believe him, do not follow us. It is not worth the risk to your life if you do not believe." He stared around at those who would not follow, and many of them met his hard eyes with hard eyes of their own. "If you think my son is crazed, stay here. You can die to the Karazans, instead of the ghosts."

There was no turning back from those words, though it was too late to turn back at all. Kenin stepped back, closer to the forest, and his son waited beside him, showing no emotion, no reaction. Some of those who had hesitated at last moved forth and joined the crowd at the edge of the woods, but nearly a third of the townsfolk stayed put. Most were families led by those who did not trust Kenin nor his strange, shunned child.

There was a moment of silence as the two groups separated, and kinfolk stared at kinfolk across a suddenly impassable gulf. Kenin was the first to turn away, turning his back on a third of those he had sworn to guard, giving up one third of the gold of Barafel in the uncertain hope of saving the rest. Slowly, the faithful beside him turned as well, and Kenin heard the people who had chosen to stay retreating to the shelter of the buildings.

Every moment the air was growing lighter, for dawn was not far away. Slowly, imperceptibly, the dawn crept up over the world, in a lightening of the air that could not be tracked or noticed. Slowly the darkness was banished, piece by piece, as the sunlight stole into the air and bathed even the haunted forest. The shadows were banished yet the woods remained obscure. Within the wood lay no longer a flood of shadow but a deep layer of greyish mist. Into the lightening mist the trees marched, one by one, utterly alone, betraying no secrets in their eternal, immobile march into the unknown horror. The farthest ones were so shrouded in greyness that they seemed to float in the air. Kenin stared at the spaces between the trees. He was not his son, for he saw nothing, and he could not even imagine that anything was there.

"Right," said Kenin, running his fingers through his unkempt hair. He raised his voice to speak to the crowd. "Now, follow me into the forest," he cried. "If we stay together, I promise you, we will come to no harm." With the impossible promise he had just made to his people still weighing heavily on his mind, Kenin started forward into the woods. His son Pon trudged beside him.

Kenin heard the shuffling feet of dozens of people moving behind him, as one by one, family by family, they followed him down the hill. There were scattered murmurs among them, and parents urged their children to stay beside them, and some of those murmurs were mutterings of doubt, but if any of the remaining flock chose to turn back and face their certain deaths in the town, Kenin did not bother to see if it was so.

As they went down the hill, the mist in the deepness of the forest seemed to rise up the hill and race across the ground to meet them. Kenin knew that he could not look back over his shoulder. No matter how much he desired to, even if only to see the last of Barafel that he was likely ever to see, he could not now look over his shoulder at the town. He had made his decision, and it was now his obligation to follow it.

They passed the first tree. It was smaller than the others, and it stood apart. The rest of the haunted forest lay ahead, but as Kenin, with his little son at his side, walked past the first tree, he felt a shifting in the air, a loss of grounding and balance as though he had just walked off the edge of a cliff and plunged into deep, dark, sudden waters. This feeling existed only in his heart, for his feet trod solid ground, and there was nothing around him but the slope of the hill, and the trees, and the grass, and the mist. Kenin heard the townsfolk murmuring behind him as they passed the first tree and felt the haunted forest claim them.

They passed another tree, and then a third. Kenin's heart beat rapidly and heavily in his chest. For a moment--though his feet never wavered and his progress never slowed--Kenin cherished the thought of turning and leading his people out of the woods. As he teetered on the edge of the few seconds in time when that decision could still be made, his feet never stopped moving forward, and the train of Barafellens followed in his wake, and his son was lurching on clumsily beside him. Soon he had no choice. The trees were all around them. A mist suffused the air.

Kenin waved his hand through the air as he walked. It was foolish to attempt to part the mist, for it was not solid. Still, he thought that some of it, almost invisibly, parted as his hand swept it aside. There was clear air in front of him, and Kenin stared at it, yet swiftly, as he moved on, the haunted mist swept back in and filled the space that Kenin's movement had briefly cleared. Trails of mist ran away from his body like water. The trees were everywhere, and the mist surrounded them like water. There were currents in the mist: the substance flowed from tree trunk to tree trunk like the waters of a strange, shallow, pale sea, even more permeable than water, and unlike seas and rivers, carrying no life. Around the trees, the mist pooled and swirled. The mist ran away from Kenin's arms and legs and chest and it clung to the fabric of his coat, though he could not feel it at all. The air in the forest was no cooler than expected. Kenin and his son stepped over the tangled roots that ran between the trees. Kenin, certain now that the town would be gone from sight, chanced a look back.

The long trail of townsfolk followed Kenin and his son loyally, never straying from the path. The Barafellens spoke very little, often clinging to each other's bodies or clothing or arms. The townsfolk wound down past and often between the trees, and their faces were pale and grey in the light of the mist of the woods. They cast worried glances to either side, but Kenin saw nothing that they might have seen in the woods. Kenin stood on a ridge in the forest, feet planted on tangled roots, and he looked out over the remainder of his people as they fled and followed him in flight. The mist swarmed around them, and they parted it as they struggled on. Mist streamed away from their bodies, and eddies and currents of it swirled around them and streamed away.

The air was cold, and all thought and sight of Barafel was gone. They had not travelled very far. It was strange, Kenin mused while passing another silent and shrouded tree, that they had gone such a little way yet now seemed to be far beyond the place where Barafel had ever been. All around, in every direction, nought met his gaze but an endless smoky sea in which the trees stood silent and thoughtless. The ground ran up and then down, over and down the hills and through vales and past ridges and bluffs and boulders. His son kept an eye out, and the survivors of Barafel went on. With every hundred paces, the path behind them vanished, and more of the path ahead of them was revealed, but it was all identical to itself. They moved through a changeless, endless world of forest and mist. Nothing crossed their path; even the sounds of animals were absent.

To the west the Barafellans went, trusting in Kenin, as Kenin trusted in the part of his son that he had never been able to confront. The boy said nothing as he strolled along, though Kenin saw from the way Pon's eyes searched that he was looking very intently for the things which he alone could see. Pon must have realised that Kenin was staring at him, for the boy turned his eyes up to his father.

"It is so quiet, papa," the boy said. Kenin thought nothing of the remark at first, until he considered that Pon might not be speaking of the same silence that everyone else was familiar with; that, although it was silent in every other way, when the boy said that it was silent, he might be speaking of the absence of a certain sound which only he could hear.

Straining to catch any sound at all in the forest, Kenin eventually began to hear something which had not been there a moment before. A faint sound stole into the world, a sound like many voices softly whispering. And Kenin knew at once what the sound indicated; it was not the whispering of ghosts, if they whispered, or indeed existed at all. At the head of his fleeing, frightened people, he strode through the woods with a much renewed purpose. Soon enough it came into sight, and if Kenin could not feel joy, he felt something sounder and stronger.

They had risked being lost in the woods; they ran that risk no longer; they had found the Willow River.

From the east it ran, away from the doomed town of Barafel, babbling down westward. It was wide in breadth, babbling down a shallow slope and coursing between trees that overhung the river and did not touch it. The surface of the water was glassy and smooth, and wholly opaque like liquid silver. Kenin stood at the edge of what could almost be mistaken for a river of fog. He looked east and saw a faint hope of sunlight shining, far beyond the mist and trees of the haunted wood.

It was cold, on the riverbank, colder than it had been in the woods away from the misty water's edge. This could not be explained. Kenin shivered, and looked away, and stepped back. The townsfolk huddled near the river, gazing upon its hidden, cold, pale surface with wary eyes. The trees along the riverbank were dark and grim.

We sent her down the river, Kenin thought, with flowers in her hair.

"We must follow the Willow River west," Kenin declared. "It is known that the river leaves the woods on the western side, and heads out into the fertile lands beyond. Therefore, we will follow its course, and find our way to safer, open lands." He looked around at all the faces, hoping for someone to agree with him, perhaps expecting someone to challenge him, but no one replied.

Seeing no choice but to take the lead, Kenin started along the length of the riverbank. The soil beneath his feet was soft, for the grass ended just before the bank. It was a silent journey for a while, and Pon walked beside Kenin, seeming not to tire, hardly making a sound. Kenin glanced down at his son from time to time to see if he could find any hint in the boy's quiet eyes of anything alarming. The mist flowed past their feet, and crept over the river, and crept from the river to the land, and hung over and around the high forest canopy like a vast, permeable spider's web built by ghost spiders, out of ghost-silk. The trees grew thicker as the Barafellans followed the river to the west. Soon it was hard progress, for the trees around the riverbank became very thick. Kenin had to clamber over roots and squeeze between tree trunks and struggle through thick vegetation. The healthy adults remaining among the townsfolk stopped to help their children and those too ill to go on their own through the tangled brush. Kenin could not lead his people away from the river, though the forest seemed to grow more opposed to their progress with every moment passed, and with every step taken. Kenin was worried that if they deviated for a moment from the path of the river westward they might never find it again; that if the swirling mist that shrouded the water passed from their sight even for an instant, they would look for it once more in vain, and then they would be lost in the woods forever.

Maxas and Barok were at the head of the group, clearing away as much brush as they could, whether with their weapons or with their bare hands and the strength of their arms and bodies, and other able-bodied townsfolk were spaced through the group, helping others along. Still Kenin saw that they were struggling. Nothing lay ahead but impossible tangles of foliage. People began to complain of feeling trapped, and Kenin was seized with the sudden fear that the ghosts might come upon them now, when they had no chance of escaping--but Pon looked all around and the boy said nothing about seeing any ghosts.

Kenin could hardly move; he was stuck in the brush, and he had to struggle to get free. All around him he saw foliage that had suddenly come to surround them, as though it had rushed forth in a vast, sudden ambush and seized them in its clutches. He looked ahead, desperately, sure that they could not turn back now, hoping to take stock of his surroundings and determine where they could go.

Through the tangled branches Kenin saw the ground sloping up ahead, up until it peaked in a ridge-line that was cut in half by the river that coursed between the sundered hills. Trees hung precariously from the edge, over the water. They seemed about to fall into the water, but Kenin could not imagine anything ever changing in the haunted woods. Leaning against the trees that hung over the river, standing on the summit of the high ground, arrayed around the hilltop, utterly still, like statues, very dark, with mists swirling around them, were the obscure forms, featureless at a distance and in the odd light, of human figures with spears in their hands and shields beside them and helms on their heads.

Kenin's breath caught in his thought; the possibility of speech was robbed from him. He wanted to cry out but he could say nothing, and perhaps that was for the best, for if he was able to speak he might only have cried out in despair. The figures on the hill were utterly in shadow, and they could not be made out. They did not move. The longer Kenin looked, the more of them he saw. A host of phantom figures crowded around the hilltop. Kenin did not, perhaps could not move. As he wondered whether he should call for his people behind him to halt, for he wondered whether the ghosts had seen him and he did not wish to draw the attention of the devouring spirits, his son spoke, quietly and clear.

"Father, do you see the ghosts?"

And Kenin's heart became as ice. All this time, he had hoped that they were not real. All this time, even while preparing for the worst, he had hoped that the stories were only stories which most had believed. All this time he had secretly hoped that there were no ghosts in the woods and that it was simply a strange, shrouded forest where nothing changed or grew. Now that the truth had come to him so suddenly, his hopes were laughable. There was no other forest like this in the world. He was to blame. He had led his people into this forest. Here, as expected, were the spirits to claim them. Would it be better or worse, Kenin wondered, to die at the maw of a ghost than at the spear of a Karazan?

Yet perhaps they could hide from them. As soon as he thought this, he realised its foolishness. The forest belonged to the ghosts. His son had seen them flitting about, invisible to all others. It was only at his moment, Kenin supposed--his heart still pounding away, his mind racing to find something other than terror to occupy it--that the ghosts had seen fit to make themselves visible to the eyes of mortals. For what cause could they do this, if not to strike terror into their prey? Mortal men and women had no hope of running or hiding from the spirits in their own domain. All along, everyone had thought Pon a strange child, a weird child, a mad child. Perhaps there was some truth to that, Kenin thought ruefully, staring down at his son who for some reason was gazing anywhere but up the hill where the host of phantoms waited. Nevertheless Pon had been right in his strangeness; Pon's madness had been true. Kenin had to be strong for his people, now. He had to be strong for his son. He grasped the boy's shoulder with a single hand.

"I see them, son," he said.

"There are so many of them, papa," Pon said, clearly frightened of the ghosts, for he was looking off to one side.

"There are many," Kenin acknowledged. "Wait here, boy."

Maxas was close behind him; the rest of the townsfolk had not yet come far enough or looked in the direction needed to see the ghosts waiting ahead at the top of the riverside hill. The sudden hiss of breath from his captain told Kenin that Maxas had seen the dark figures at the top of the hill.

"Here," Kenin said curtly. He picked up his little son and thrust him into Maxas' waiting arms. "Take the boy back to the people. Tell them to turn back and find a clear space."

"But father--" Pon began to protest.

"Quiet, boy." Kenin said. "Do as I say, Maxas. I will meet the ghosts on our behalf. If they are truly the spirits of men, perhaps they still retain some memory of what they were. I will speak to them as what they have lost."

"As you command," Maxas said, though his true wish to accompany Kenin was plain on his noble face.

"Father, I don't understand," Pon was saying, but Maxas quickly hushed him, and turned back, and strode away, crossing with some difficulty through the crackling shifting brush.

Kenin waited until he saw that the townsfolk had met Maxas, and, ordered to do so, had turned back to the clearer spaces in the forest by the river. Upward through the thick brush Kenin struggled, matching the flow of the shrouded silver river. His hands and skin were scratched by branches, and he stumbled over roots and rocks, yet on he went. The air seemed to grow darker as he approached the presence of the spirits, though it might have been a dark fancy. They were dark, obscured figures which he could hardly make out. The brush did not let up as he came near them. Kenin found himself reciting, in his mind, the speech he would give to spare his life. He found no words that seemed honest, nor eloquent, nor noble enough. He could only hope that the spirits still spoke the tongues of men; he could only hope that the spirits had once been men. He was sure that his cause was not hopeless. He would ask only a little thing; only that the spirits spare some hundred-odd humans passing through their woods.

The spirits were vaguely glimpsed through the branches and trees and mist. From time to time he saw another one, appearing or revealing itself from behind a tree, closer than he had expected. The ghosts wore armour, and carried weapons in their hands, and did not move, and he could not see their faces or flesh.

There was a little clearing at the top of the hill. Kenin burst into that clearing, relieved to be free of the forest for a time. In the clearing, a single tree stood alone and tall. Against that tree, arrayed in arms and armour, with a spear clutched in a gauntleted hand, there stood the figure of a man. It was facing away from Kenin. It did not react to his approach. The phantom in armour watched the forest beyond.

Kenin knew he should speak. He could find no fitting words. The ghost did not seem to breathe. It did not seem to move. Kenin stepped forward very carefully. As quiet as he was, surely the ghost knew he was there. Hesitantly, Kenin crept around the great tree trunk, around the unmoving figure, to get a better look at its face. He walked around to the front of it; he could now see clearly into the figure's face.

A rotted visage met his gaze, with eyes long bereft of their purpose. An open, grinning mouth held yellow, broken teeth. The cheeks still held flesh, yet it was bloodless flesh, drained of the substance of life, gaunt and grey like some foul never-human thing. In an image that was forever afterward burned into Kenin's memory, he saw that the face was contorted in fear and pain.

A wild impulse overcame him; drawing his sword from its sheath with such fury that it seemed to leap into his hand of its own will, Kenin came forward and struck terrifically against the horrific figure. No great battle was waged. The figure made no reply. The blow of Kenin's blade sent it toppling to the side, depriving it of its precarious perch, and the armoured figure fell to the floor of the glade. It fell clumsily and heavily, and on impact with the ground the figure scattered into pieces, and the helm and head went rolling along the ground.

Whatever fear and fury that had overcome him suddenly passed. Kenin looked down at the body on the ground. The shield that had been propped up against the side of the ghost had fallen to the soft floor, face up, bearing its ensign clearly for Kenin to witness. He took a step back, astonished. Piecing the truth together, he dashed about the glade.

Now as though a veil or a shroud of unnatural, clinging mist had been lifted from his eyes, Kenin saw clearly, for the first time, the many figures lurking in the mist and the shadows of the tangled woods at the top of the hill. Each and every one of them was deathly still, and they carried spears or swords or axes in their death-grips, and their flesh was pale and bloodless, and they sagged against trees or rocks or each other, or the strength of their armour held them up. Kenin looked from each to each and for the first time he saw them for what they were. He looked down at the ground then, and at the low places in the undergrowth, and he saw the crumbling remnants of the men. They all wore the same armour and carried the same sorts of weapons, and many had shields, and the designs on the shields were all the same. Everywhere he looked, Kenin saw nothing but dead, devoured men bearing the arms and armour of Karaz.

He left them in their eternal rest, suddenly understanding what had happened. If a present fear fled from him, a deeper fear set in.

When Kenin struggled back down the tangled slopes and came out into a clearing where his surviving people waited, his son, released from Maxas' arms, ran forth. Kenin knelt and embraced his dear little boy. All around them the mist swirled, and it trailed from their arms. All around them the mist was parting and swirling as though unseen forms were passing through it.

"What were you doing up on the hill, papa?" Pon asked.

"Never mind that, son," Kenin said. "I should not have left you alone. I should not have left any of you alone," he repeated, raising his voice, addressing the townsfolk, but from the looks on their faces he saw that his gathered, huddled people were confused and did not understand. Even the bravest and brightest of them did not understand. In the strange light of the woods their faces seemed like the faces of fragile, beautiful spirits.

"Were you looking for ghosts?" his son asked, and Kenin looked into Pon's black, shrewd eyes. In that moment, his son seemed much older than ten-odd years.

"Yes, Pon," Kenin said gravely, rising to his feet. "I thought they were up on the hill."

"But they're not up there, papa!" Pon chuckled. "Only I can see them."

"Yes, son." Kenin sighed. "Only you can see them, and you said you could see them. Where are the ghosts, Pon?" as he asked, he knew the answer.

"All around us, father. Everywhere."

The mists swirled together and apart as invisible forms passed through them. Kenin found it difficult to look at those swirling trails of mist. Some of the townsfolk, hearing Pon clearly, began to murmur, and word passed from ear to ear. Kenin turned to his son once more.

"Will you talk to them for us, Pon?"

"What should I say, father?" Pon said, suddenly grave and serious again, seeming so much older than he was.

There were gasps, quickly hushed, from those of the nearby survivors who quickly understood the meaning of that quiet conversation. Maxas turned and surveyed the mists and the woods all around, and his quick eyes seemed to be searching for some hint of those spirits which only Pon could see. Barok, like a dread phantom himself in the strange light of the woods, glowered at figures he could not see. Kenin could almost imagine the ghosts moving near. He almost felt the air growing colder as they passed him, as the mists nearby swirled apart. But if, indeed, as Pon claimed, the spirits were all around them, they chose not to come down in their unnatural killing fury upon the helpless, scattered townsfolk. Instead, invisible to all but one, freely, they flew through the air, separate from the mortal world, little different from mist.

Kenin fell to his knees, overwhelmed by his dark journey through the alien woods. The grass was soft beneath him. Everywhere he looked he saw no way out of the forest. He cast a careful eye over his people and saw them waiting and watching for his words. He took a deep breath. The idea of speech came back to him. He pieced the words together bit by bit, knowing that what he said next might save them, or damn them, or perhaps accomplish both at once. There was no choice but to speak, and to speak now, and to speak in full. He raised his voice. He made sure it was clear and loud.

"Tell them that we come from Barafel, Pon. Tell them we are fleeing from an army of Karaz which has come to our town to destroy it. Tell them that the lord who promised to protect us gave no effort to defend us. Tell them that we held the enemy back, for one night, for two nights, for three nights! Tell the ghosts that our spirits and our bodies fought bravely, that our defence of Barafel was glorious, and that every man and woman proved themselves worthy of myth. Tell them that our little town, for three nights, was the greatest fortress in the mortal world, but that we could not hold for a fourth. Tell them that the greater part of our people, most of them by far, are dead already, or in chains. Tell them that we fled through the woods, even knowing the danger, for it was better than a certain death."

"The town is gone," Kenin continued, and as he spoke he felt the memory of himself and his wife and their strange little Pon floating down the river in the sunlight fading by his own admission of the hard truth, until it was no longer a memory but an image indistinguishable from a dream. All of Barafel became that dream, in his mind: all the proud buildings and the old families and the crowded streets and markets faded slowly into a spectral, unfelt mist. "There is nothing left," he said, little above a whisper, mostly to himself. "Tell the ghosts that we few who survive want nothing now but to live. Let us through the woods to our safety in the west. Please. We have nothing at all to offer you. We have nothing else to ask."

Kenin expected his son to repeat his words to the ghosts, but instead the little boy cocked his head to one side and was silent, listening to something no one else could hear. There was a silence, or at least, there seemed to be a silence, spreading over the vast woods. No one living spoke. All was silent. Kenin, alone in his grief, tried to hold on to the last pieces of the memory of floating down the Willow River with his wife and son in the summer, but try as he might, he felt that memory slipping farther and farther away with every second, like a boat down a river in the sun. How strange it was, that so much beauty could depend upon a cluster of buildings and a few human lives.

"Father," Pon said, and he turned his dark eyes upon his sire, and Kenin, kneeling, at a level with the boy, felt as though a man was looking at him who was much, much older than he. "She wants to see you."

Through the crowd there were a few murmurs, of "who is she?" and "who is she?" but Kenin did not wonder. Kenin already knew. He looked from his boy out at the swirling mists, out at one particular spot in the swirling mists where the mists swirled apart. It almost seemed that someone was there, almost that a human form was there, almost that the mists sweeping apart almost made the outline of a shape, and Kenin stared. As he stared he began to believe that he could determine a shape surrounded by the mist. It was a human form that Kenin could never, ever have mistaken for anyone else.

"Elira?" Kenin asked, with greatest pain, staring into the places where there was no mist. We sent her down the river, as we did with all of the dead.

"Mother says she has missed you," Pon said. "She says I have grown up so strong."

"He has, Elira. Oh, he has." Kenin's hands shook. His whole body shook. "Can she hear us, boy?"

"They can all hear us, father," Pon said, as if amazed that Kenin did not know.

"How many, boy?" Kenin said, glancing away from his invisible phantom wife, looking at the places all around where the mist swirled.

"Very many, father," Pon said. "There are too many for me to count."

Kenin rose to feet, on unsteady legs. He stared at the absent form ahead of him. The mist in front of his face, which was thick, parted slowly, as something unseen passed through it. He saw the outline of a form passing through the mist, coming near to him.

"Elira," he said, surrounded by the strangeness of the moment and the strangeness of the wood. "Elira, Elira, my dear. How I have missed you."

She could not reply, and Kenin did not want Pon to speak for her. Yet, though he could not feel it, the mist parted in front of his face, and he was certain, though it was neither seen nor felt, that the phantom form of his wife came right up to him, and that, on his shivering lips, his long-lost Elira planted a soft, single kiss.

Then she was gone, and she drifted invisibly away from him, and the mists swirled around. Kenin understood: the request would be granted. They would be spared. Only….

There are times when one man or woman has a chance to make a single choice that, while determined and tied to other decisions, nevertheless, in that choice's moment, has the power to change the future in vast, unimaginable ways. Kenin Caral would never know, unto his death, the full extent of the effect that his decision, made with passion, with desperate hope, would have on Barafel and on lands far beyond. It cannot be said that he made the wrong decision. It cannot be said that, even if he had known the full future that would tumble out from his choice, even then, that he would have been wrong in making the same decision--for no one would ever know what the alternative world might have been. Kenin Caral stood in the woods, in the aftermath of death, in the midst of fear and hope, and he made his choice.

"Wait," he called, to the spirits retreating through the woods. Not wanting to wait, not wanting to waste his chance, he continued, speaking in blindness, with strength. "It is not too late for Barafel. To the east, beyond the woods, the Karazans still ransack the town. They still kill and enslave the inhabitants. They still plunder it with their malevolent wills! If you are truly the Ghosts of Barafel, if who are who I believe you to be, know then that we few here and those who might still survive in Barafel are the remnant of all that the town is and will ever be. We few might survive, might remain, might rebuild the town. Yet we cannot do this without defeating the foe, and…" here he made his fatal choice, here he cast the world's dice, "we cannot drive out the Karazans on our own. Help us, phantoms," he pleaded to them. With his eyes wide, staring from each unseen ghost to each unseen ghosts, he pleaded with them. "Help us, Ghosts of Barafel. There is still time to save the town. I know not if phantoms can ever be persuaded to interfere in the affairs of the mortal world, but surely you recognize us as your own, as your people, your cousins and children, the descendants of the flesh you once were. Will you honour our bond?"

They did not speak, or, if they did speak, Kenin was not blessed and cursed as his son was to hear them speak. If they spoke, only his little son heard them. If the ghosts spoke, their words went whistling overhead and soaring through the brightened mist without landing and catching on mortal ears. But while he watched the mists shifting, Kenin saw that the outlines of human forms which must have been floating through the air seemed to be turning, to be rising, to be leaving the survivors of Barafel. The ghosts were slowly drifting to the east. The townsfolk, still understanding little of what had occurred, huddled together, bound by fear and comfort. Kenin turned to his dark little boy. In his son's face Kenin Caral sought a confirmation of his own unexpected hopes. But his son had turned, and was staring, off at where the ghosts must have been, to the east.

"They said nothing, father," Pon said, as if disappointed that for once they had not spoken to him. "Where are they going?"

"Oh, Pon," Kenin said, and he knelt before his son and gripped him fiercely, and he tried to look at the same ghosts his son was watching, though of course he saw nothing, just as everyone else in the wood saw nothing, just as the Karazans who had tried to pass through the forest had seen nothing before they died. "To Barafel, my boy. They are going home."

So Kenin Caral held his son as the people of Barafel gathered around them and spoke amongst each other, and Kenin would soon rise and speak to them all and put an end to their confusion and explain what had happened, but he was not ready for that, not yet. The mist thickened around them and grew as still as the surface of an infinite sea. To the east it was still swirling, still parting and shifting wildly as innumerable invisible figures went floating through it, as the Ghosts of Barafel went drifting, perhaps marching, off to vengeance and to war.

THE END


Copyright 2017, Rory Angus

Bio: I am an aspiring fantasy writer from Victoria, B.C. Canada. I have studied creative writing and philosophy at Camosun College. I prefer to write high fantasy and science fantasy stories. I also write formal poetry and have been published in the 2014 "Island Magic" anthology by The Poetry Institute of Canada and Young Writers, for the short fantasy poem "Giants".

E-mail: Rory Angus

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