The Frozen Forest
“There are a hundred towers in the palace of Narzard, each one over a hundred feet tall. The gardens are ever in bloom, with crystal clear lakes and pools of sweet water. The people within wear only the finest silks, and eat only the choicest foods - silver trout fresh from the river, peacock dressed in their feathers, and now and then, when they go a-hunting in the forests, a golden stag, roasted with figs.” Ozan had always told the tale best, Sabah remembered. Even though he had been old, and his back bent, he would mime the tales, using his walking stick as a spear, or using his bony hands to cast shadows that looked like flying birds or barking dogs. Each day the children of the village would gather beneath the olive tree on the hill to listen, sitting at his feet wide-eyed and full of wonder.
“Many and more were jealous of Narzard’s riches, and so fortune-hunters, beggars and thieves would try to breach the Palace’s mighty walls. The fortune-hunters would claim that they had gifts and skills so great that they deserved to be let in; but when tested, their works would crumble and their words become hollow. The beggars would crowd the gates, pleading for scraps and calling out in anger that the gods had seen fit to punish them so. The thieves would try to climb the walls with hooks and ropes, and steal past the guards… but always they were caught. Now, you would think that the King would have been angry with them - but our Kings and Queens have always been wise, and so the old King summoned all of them to his court and spoke:
“You would seek our treasures, but all that is worth having cannot be given, nor taken. It must be earned.”
“He gave each of them three gifts - a skin of water, a wooden branch and a knife. And then he threw open the doors to his treasure vault and said: “Herein lies the wealth of my Kingdom. The forest below bears the fruits that you seek. Take your fill. The worthy will find the path through and earn their reward. But should you be unworthy, the guardians of my jeweled forest will know, and they will seek you out.” The fortune seekers, the beggars and the thieves ventured down beneath the Palace. But only one of them was worthy - the young hero Taylan, who had come as a humble stonemason and offered his skills in honesty. He emerged into the light of the Palace with a pocket full of rubies, and the King welcomed him as his own kin.
“After that there were no more fortune-hunters or beggars or thieves in Narzard. For they knew that each year the King would willingly open his treasure vault, and the worthy could take all that they could carry - and so it has remained for a hundred years.”
After they had listened to the tales, Sabah would imagine herself boldly walking through the treasure vault, plucking glimmering stones and shimmering pearls from the trees. She would pretend that she would emerge to cheers, and be dressed in silks, then invited to hunt in the King’s parklands. She would ride a fine horse with a snowy coat, and have a rare white falcon upon her arm to match it. Oftentimes she would gather with the other children and they would play at having a feast - an old sack stuffed with straw severed as a “stag” and they would pick wildflowers and scatter shells around it for the figs and greens.
Sabah had promised herself that one day she would venture forth and find her fortune, but as she had grown up those dreams had been replaced with the reality of life in the fishing village. Picturing yourself in silk clothing was near impossible when repairing nets or gutting fish. Her hands had become calloused and rough, and her clothes always smelled of the sea. Her mount was a small wooden boat, her hunting companions gulls.
Still, she had been happy enough. Her family and friends were around her, and they had always had enough to eat. She even had her own hut; a simple but comfortable place upon the shoreline, cool in the summer heat, cozy in the winter rains. She would have stayed there, she supposed, if it had not been for the storm. The sea had risen up, each wave a dark looming wall of water which crashed down upon the village in a terrifying fury. The villagers had had to run for the hill, frantically trying to take shelter behind rocks and cower in ditches. The wind had howled and screamed, and the sky had crackled with lightning. When finally the winds had died down they ventured to the shore to find that their village had been all but washed away. The huts were no more than piles of kindling, the olive trees were uprooted and broken. Even the tree on the hill, under which Sabah had spent so many happy days playing in her youth had been blackened and splintered into nothing more than a twisted skeleton.
“We will endure,” Adalet, the village elder had reassured them, even as they tended to the wounded and laid their dead to rest. “Every hundred years the storms come - but we are still here.”
But rebuilding had been no simple matter; unable to fish, they had lived off what they could collect from the sea’s shore. There was no surplus, and without their catch to sell they had not been able to buy the tools or materials they needed to repair their boats and homes. Sabah spent her days walking along the rocks to collect mussels and snails and her nights sleeping under a lean-to, where once her hut had stood.
“This is no good,” she had said one morning, as she walked along the beach with her basket looking for clams. “If we don’t do something soon, winter will be upon us with no stores and no warmth to be had.” It was then, after years of having been forgotten, that Ozan’s story about the underground forest of the Palace of Narzard had returned to her. She had stopped and looked back at her village, and pictured it rebuilt, its people happy and care-free… wealthy enough that they could trade and buy whatever they needed. Surely she would be worthy enough to pass through the forest unharmed, if she was going for them? She had sought out Adalet to tell her of the plan, but the elder was not impressed.
“Only the foolish and the desperate go to the Palace,” she had said.
“We are desperate!” Sabah had protested, waving her arm across the make-shift shelters and the subdued villagers.
But Adalet had shaken her head and crossed her arms.
“We are not so desperate that you should even think to enter the King’s forest. No one that ventures into its embrace ever returns.”
“Taylan did,” Sabah insisted.
“You should not believe all you hear in tales, Sabah. If the King was good, why would he not give us the means to rebuild?” she shook her head again. “No, if he opens his vault is it only because he is sure that nothing will be taken from him.”
Sabah had not been defeated, though. The autumn moon was approaching - the day on which the King would open the forest, and the night on which the winter would start to creep in. That very night she had gathered what little things she could carry and set off for the Palace.
Now here she stood, at the golden gates of Narzard on the day of the autumn moon. There weren’t a hundred towers, there were only thirty eight, but still they were as impressive as Ozan had promised; great glittering white spires that thrust up into the blue. A gaggle of travelers from every walk of life were crowded around her, waiting for the gates to open. She scanned their faces, wondering which of them were the fools and which were desperate? Here a young man bragging to his friends that he was Taylan come again, and would live in the city once he had walked through the forest… and there a man all bones and rags, with sorrowful eyes and greying hair. A solemn-faced woman, six feet tall and with muscles like a blacksmith was talking quietly with a younger girl with freckles and auburn hair. Both were wearing finely embroidered clothes and dyed leather satchels - costly garb. Why would they venture here? And were any of them worthy enough to walk the forest?
Sabah didn’t have much time to wonder, for then a trumpet sounded and the gates rolled open. A dozen guards on bright white chargers rode forth, their robes resplendent in scarlet and blue and and gold, and their banners streaming in the breeze. They arranged themselves to either side of the gate, and then a man in a brown robe bellowed:
“People of the King! Enter the gates of Narzard and be welcome!”
Sabah was pushed along with the surge into a large plaza edged by orange and lemon trees - and more guards. Before them the Palace towered, a wide facade of carved white marble and curling golden metalwork. Finely dressed noblemen and women stood upon balconies above them, their silken clothes all the colours of the rainbow.
“All hail the King!” the cry went up, and the people around her cheered. Upon the largest balcony, half a dozen guards in glittering golden armour marched out of the palace. They turned and thumped their spears upon the stone, and then the King himself stepped out into the morning’s sunshine.
He didn’t look as Sabah had imagined him. Ozan’s stories always painted the picture of a wise man, grandfatherly in his demeanor, in layers of silk and a crown of gold. This King was younger - his hair was black and his beard oiled to a point at his chest. He did wear the silks, but they were nearly covered with the glittering gems and beads that were embroidered over his garments. Upon his brow was a crown of stones so dazzling it cast a halo of light about him. His face was long and thin, with an aquiline nose and high cheekbones, which gave him a rather severe expression.
“My people…” The crowd fell silent, waiting for him to speak. “You have journeyed here to seek your fortune, and you are welcome to it. A hundred years ago, my Great Grandfather decreed that any and all should be welcome to test their worth in the forest. Who here claims that they are worthy to enter its boughs?”
A score of the crowd shouted out, Sabah included.
The crowd shifted and Sabah found herself propelled to the front; some people wished her well, others just stared. The bragger, the bony man and the muscular woman had likewise come forward. Those who had friends in the crowed were cheered on with shouted encouragement; for the most part. There were others, Sabah noticed, who cried and begged them not to go.
“Fortune-hunters!” the King cried out, silencing the hubbub. “You do yourselves proud, and I wish you well in the under-vault.”
There was a sudden shout and a scuffling noise. From the far side of the plaza a group of guards escorted a ragged band, prodding them forward with spears to stand alongside the volunteers. They were chained hand and foot and looked up at the King with fear in their eyes.
“What have we here?” the King asked in a tone that betrayed he knew perfectly well who these prisoners were.
“Here are thieves and highwaymen caught in the shadow of Narzard trying to steal that which is not their own!” one of the guards called back.
“Pitiful fools!” the King responded with over-emphasised woe. “There is no need to steal from this Palace! Let us give these people a second chance. What say you, my Lords and Ladies?”
The assembled nobles on the balconies cheered with approval.
“Then let it be done! These men and women shall be unbound and enter my forest. Any that are worthy and emerge shall not only be pardoned, but permitted to take any wealth that they bring with them from the treasures within.”
“The King is merciful!” came a cry from the balconies.
“The King is good!” came a cry from the crowd.
The prisoners did not look in the slightest bit relieved.
“Open the gates!” the King commanded, and two heavy marble slabs, carved in the likeness of a tree, swung open at the base of the palace building. “Go forth, and may the gods judge you fairly.”
The prisoners were unshackled and started to be prodded towards the gaping doorway. One of them tried to run, but he was quickly apprehended by the guards and dragged kicking and screaming to the entrance.
Sabah frowned. This wasn’t right. Her heart beat loudly in her chest as the others started towards the doors, waving goodbyes to their families and friends, some cracking jokes about the riches they would soon surely have, others solemn-faced with a determined look in their eyes. None carried anything.
“Your Majesty!” Sabah shouted out. Everyone around her fell silent in surprise. A lowly commoner such as her would never dare address the King. “Your Majesty!” she called again. The King heard her and looked down with dark stormy eyes.
“Have you changed your mind, child?” he asked, with an edge of displeasure to his voice.
“No, your Majesty. It’s just that… the guards have forgotten our three gifts. Like in the story - Taylan was given water and wood and steel…”
The silence that followed was thick and cloying. Sabah felt the colour rising in her cheeks; she could feel the hundreds of pairs of eyes on her. Suddenly the King laughed. He had a deep booming laugh and it rolled around the plaza and bounced off the marble walls and towers.
“Give this one her gifts!”
There were murmurs and mumblings as some of the guards scurried away. The wait seemed an age in that strange place, the cool air flowing up from the open vault, the warm sunlight creeping over the shifting crowd. Finally they returned and handed out skins of water, pieces of wood as long and thick as a man’s arm, and plain steel daggers. Not all of the volunteers took the items, and none of the prisoners were offered any.
“Thank you, your Majesty,” Sabah said. She tucked the knife into her belt, slung the waterskin at her hip, then saluted with the wood. This raised a few chuckles from the nobles’ balconies, but the crowd that had come to watch called out good wishes and blessings.
And so Sabah turned to the gates and descended into the cool dark of the vault.
The marble slabs closed behind her with a heavy grinding noise.
A few of their number stalked off with eager confidence. A handful sat behind the gates and cried.
It is only because they are not worthy, Sabah thought to reassure herself. I am not here to steal, I am here for my village.
Sabah walked steadily down, down, down along the smooth slope with a host of strangers around her. No one spoke. A faint light shone from below them; to begin with, it was only just enough to see their way, but as they continued the light grew brighter and brighter, until it looked like they would emerge back into the sunshine that they had left behind them.
When they arrived at the bottom of the passage, however, it was as if they had stepped into another world.
A hundred thousand trees stretched out before them, each carved from silky white marbles. They bore no leaves, but their fruit were the treasures of the earth; blood red rubies the size of apples, blossoms of pink pearls and blue sapphires, deep green emeralds and diamonds which cast rainbows across every surface.
Most of the group recovered from their awe swiftly, and ran forward to pluck the fruits. Merchants stuffed all they could carry into pockets and shirts - a beggar who had had the foresight to bring a burlap sack carelessly tossed the precious stones into the grubby bag, the muscled woman loaded her leather satchel, and another woman simply tried to hold as many of the gems as she could within her hands. Sabah did not take a single stone.
Ozan had always told that the frozen forest extended as far as the Palace itself - acres of petrified trees and all with as rich a bounty as those by the entrance. There seemed no sense in weighing herself down with rocks now, when she didn’t know how far she would have to wander to find her way out. What was certain, from the faint pleading and sobs that echoed down from behind her - the guards would not be re-opening the door she had come in by.
She struck out through the trees, gently brushing her fingers over cool, smooth trunks, and staring into the depths of jewels she didn’t have names for - seeing her reflection broken into a hundred dazzling pieces. Each tree was a perfect work of art - no two alike. Some were thick with drooping branches, others tall and slim and proud. They created tunnels of caustic lights, a patchwork of soft colours to stain the snowy floor.
Sabah tried to take a straight path through the trees, guessing that the exit would be on the far side of the forest from the entrance. But with the endless beauty of the jeweled trees to distract her, and without sun, moon, or stars to guide her, she soon became turned around. She was sure she had seen this same turquoise tree before; and this coral one. Or were they different? It became hard to remember. Still she walked on, hour after hour through the petrified forest, hoping upon hope that she would soon see the far wall of the cavern.
At the start of her journey she had often glimpsed others making their way through the silent pillars, but long ago she had left them behind. Whether they had turned aside or stopped or even discovered some way out she didn’t know. Very occasionally she would hear one of them - either their tread or the rustle of their clothes, or a cough or a grumble. She would turn, expecting to see them right behind her, only to find the forest empty. Sounds were strange here, the way they bounced and echoed and landed dead at her feet. More than once she had turned towards what she though was the whisper of the wind; but the unmoving boughs gave her no clue as to where these breezes might come from, and very soon she learned to ignore those whispers as a trick.
Sabah started to grow tired - and hungry. She began to wish that just one of the trees would bear apples or plums or berries, rather than the glittering stones, but none did. It took her by surprise when the light started to fade; the bright white softened into the orange of a sunset, and slowly, slowly, that began to creep towards a purple twilight.
The girl looked for a place to rest - but there was only the unyielding cold stone floor, and the frozen, silent trees. She started to shiver. It had been cool ever since she had entered the forest, but now with this strange night setting in the warmth felt as if it were being sucked away. It was getting hard to see…
A snarl made her grab for the dagger at her belt. She turned this way and that, seeking its source… but of course it was just the forest playing its strange tricks again… wasn’t it?
No, another snarl and a howling joined the first - the song of the guardians.
Sabah tried to reassure herself: In Ozan’s stories the guardians only harmed the unworthy… but each sound and scuffle seemed to come from by her side, as if the creatures were about to leap out and consume her.
It was so dark now she could barely see the dagger in her hand…
But wait! The wood! This is what it was for - the night of the frozen forest. But how to start a fire?
At the shore they used the fire-stone from the cliffs to light their stoves… perhaps one of these stones would have the fire within them, as well? She snatched a gem from the tree above her. The deep purple stone looked almost black now, there was so little light. She set her wood down on the floor and then struck her knife against the stone. It sparked! She knelt over the wood and struck again and again, hoping upon hope that each spark would take and bring the wood to life…
The snarls seemed closer… the night grew darker…
Finally, there was the tiniest glow in the wood! She blew gently on the ember…
A bloodcurdling scream ripped through the forest bouncing from tree to tree. Sabah leapt up and strained to see into the darkness, but there was nothing that she could see. She took up her torch, nursing the fire, and willing it to light more swiftly. At last the flame caught properly and began to dance on the wood. Sabah turned a circle, using the light to try and see into the darkness. Nothing.
Tired, but too afraid to close her eyes, she sat with her back to the amethyst tree and her torch in front of her, and waited for daybreak.
She didn’t know when she had fallen asleep, but she woke up stiff and cold. Golden light was shining from overhead. There was no sign of anyone else around. The torch had burned itself out at some point during the night, but she re-lit it, fearful that the creatures that had stalked the forest would still be near.
She got up and stretched and started to walk again. The beauty of the trees was lost to her now, her stomach rumbled and every little scuffing noise made the hair on the back of her neck stand up.
For an hour or more she walked, with no idea if she was going forward, or even heading back towards the gates.
It startled her when she came upon the man sitting under a tree of fiery orange stones - she had almost forgotten that there were other people in the forest with her.
There was blood on his hands, and the carcass of a huge wolf-like beast by his feet. His face looked as hard as the marble trees around them, but when he saw Sabah his mouth curled upward into a thin-lipped smile.
“Girl! Bring that fire here!” he pointed at the wolf-beast. “I have fresh meat and I would share it with you if you would share your fire.”
Sabah didn’t move. He didn’t have water or wood or steel, his wrists were red and that smile… it didn’t reach his eyes. Those were cold, hard eyes.
“You’re a thief,” she said. He probably already knew that, but she couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“I was… but what little I took when the King has all of this! Come now, would you not show some pity to a poor hungry old man?”
“Don’t believe him!”
The warning made Sabah jump. The strong, finely-dressed woman emerged from between the trees. She held her dagger openly in her hand and her eyes were fixed on the thief, untrusting.
“This is Kudret of the Wild-folk,” she told Sabah. “He may have been caught with a bauble between his fingers, but do not doubt that he has killed and would kill you for your gifts.”
“What lies this woman spins,” the man spat, scrambling to his feet. “We are all prisoners down here. I offer a fair trade…”
“Keep your demon-dog meat,” the woman replied. “You are unworthy - and come the night the rest of the pack will return for you.”
Kudret’s jaw tightened, but the smile remained frozen on his face.
“What do you understand?” He turned to Sabah. “See her clothes, girl? She has come down here for glory. I’d wager this is the first time her belly hasn’t been full.”
Sabah glanced at the woman - certainly she was not here for lack of gold… but her face looked honest and Sabah could see no reason that she would lie about this man. After all, Sabah had nothing that the woman needed. Even so - both were strangers to her.
“The guardians know the worthy from the unworthy,” Sabah said. “Let us go our separate ways and see what fate lies before us.”
“Foolish girl!” Kudret’s smile vanished. “Our fate is already decided. We’ve been sent down here to die… but your bold request for gifts might just save me…” He leapt forward with the speed of a shark, reaching for Sabah’s torch. Sabah was so startled she didn’t even try to move out of the way - but the muscular woman was not caught off-guard. She rammed a shoulder into Kudret and sent the man sprawling backward over the dead wolf-beast. Something clattered out of his hand… a long curved fang…
Was he going to stab me? The thought had barely crossed Sabah’s mind before he was back on his feet, squaring off against the woman. They circled and lunged and dodged. They came together in a flurry of blows and counters; the woman’s knife ripped across the man’s tunic, drawing a thin line of blood. He didn’t back off - if anything that enraged him more. They kicked and punched and grappled… the woman seemed the stronger, but all of a sudden the man had her wrist and was twisting… she dropped her blade. Kudret caught the steel and without hesitation sunk it into the women’s belly.
“No!” Sabah yelled, and, jumping forward, she swung her torch. The flaming club struck the thief squarely across the jaw. He yelled in pain and surprise and fell backward over the wolf-beast. The woman didn’t waste the opportunity - she leapt bodily on top of him and grabbing the fallen fang swiftly slit Kudret’s throat. The thief’s blood trickled down to pool scarlet on the white marble. He died quietly, and quickly.
The woman slowly hefted herself off his body and crawled towards the very tree that he had been sitting under. She propped her back against it and gave a heavy sigh.
“Oh!” Sabah approached slowly, still afraid.
“I did so hope to take these with me,” the woman patted the leather satchel at her side. “I see you brought no bag. You should take mine.”
“But you’ll need it to carry your gems…” Sabah tried to look her in the eyes, but her gaze kept drifting back to the red seeping between the woman’s fingers as she rested her hand on her stomach.
“Every year people go into the King’s forest, hoping that they are worthy,” the woman smiled. “I hoped, but really I already knew, even before I set off for Narzard… I am not.” She shook her head sadly. “You asked for the gifts of Taylan. I would never have thought to do so. You are wise…” She gave a deep shuddering breath, closing her eyes in pain.
“If I hadn’t asked for them, then maybe he wouldn’t have-” Sabah’s eyes darted to the dead man.
“You saw he had already killed… and taken the beast’s fang as a weapon.” The woman said softly. “Do not think that if you hadn’t had fire and I hadn’t had steel things would have been different. He had poison in his veins and hate in his heart.” She sucked a breath between gritted teeth, then asked: “You are unhurt?”
Sabah nodded, a wave of guilt washing over her. This woman had been defending her. If she hadn’t frozen, if she had joined the fight sooner… but what did she know of fighting? She was only a fisher.
“Perhaps I could help…” she offered. “A bandage-”
The woman shook her head.
“Alas, the wound is too deep. I have seen its like before. But… I would like it if you stayed with me a while… I do not wish to die alone.”
“I will.” It was the least that Sabah could do. She sat down next to the woman, trying to ignore the dead thief and the wolf-beast. The smell of blood filled her nose.
“What is your name?” The woman asked.
“Well met Sabah. I am Asli.”
They clasped hands. Asli’s hand felt slick and sticky under her palm.
“Look at this place,” Asli gave a half chuckle, half cough. “Have you ever seen its like?”
Sabah followed her gaze across the trees. The light had grown as if it were another sunny day, the trees around them looked to be clad in an incandescent autumn - reds and oranges and yellows and browns…
“And yet… I no longer find it beautiful. Do you recall what real trees look like? The life they hold?”
“There was an olive tree I used to sit under on the hill,” Sabah could see it so clearly in her mind’s eye. “It’s trunk held all the patterns of the wind and the rain… its leaves were almost silver sometimes, with beautiful green and purple fruits. We used to sit under its branches and listen to stories. It always smelled… like home.” When she looked at the woman again, there were tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Home…” she echoed softly. “What made you leave your olive tree to come here?”
“There was a storm,” Sabah reluctantly remembered what the olive tree had looked like when she had left, twisted and broken. “My village was destroyed. With winter coming and no coin…”
“There is always something that drives us away from home - but most oft than not it is for that home that we leave it.” She sounded as if she was quoting something, or someone. Her voice was dreamy, her eyelids drooping. She snapped back awake with a deep heaving breath that made the blood ooze between her fingers anew.
“Here…” she started to struggle the satchel off her shoulder with labourious movement.
“Asli! You must stay still!” Sabah tried to push her back down, but even injured the muscular woman was far stronger and won out.
“You have a good heart, I can see it. I would ask a favour of you… please… if you are deemed worthy… please seek out my sister. You’ll find her in the town of Mimnet.”
“The girl that was with you at the gate?”
The woman nodded.
“Her name is Eda. Please tell her that I’m sorry… I’m sorry I couldn’t-” She choked back a sob.
“I’ll find her, I promise. And I’ll tell her you saved me…”
The woman forced a smile through her tears.
“Sabah… live well. Be worthy.” She pushed the satchel into her hands. “Now go. Go home.”
Asli closed her eyes. Her hands slid off her body to rest by her sides, and her hand lolled back to rest against the smooth marble tree.
Only the whispers of the forest answered.
Sabah didn’t know what to do. In her village they always returned the dead to the sea - and there they would be reborn as dolphins. There was no sea here. She had heard that in the land-places they burned their dead or covered them with the earth. But she had no earth, nor wood enough for a pyre, even.
Every year people venture into the frozen forest - and don’t come out again. But there were no bones that she had found. Perhaps the King was merciful enough to recover those who had died and help their spirits find their way home. She could only hope that that was the case.
Sabah slung the heavy satchel across her shoulder and bowed to Asli. When she turned and walked off through the trees, she didn’t look back - she couldn’t. For a time she walked without any thought of her direction. She just let her feet carry her. Her belly growled and her shoulder ached from the weight of the bag. Still she continued, until her body was shaking.
She stopped and looked around; and for a moment she thought that she had come home. The trees around her were blue and turquoise, green and aqua - the light cast through them looked like the glitter of the sea.
This is where I’m supposed to be, she thought. She sat beneath a silvery tree in the midst of the sea-grove and took the satchel off. She rubbed a finger over the soft red leather, trying to ignore the darker patches that she knew was Asli’s blood.
Will her spirit find its way out of here? She wondered what had happened to all the spirits of those that must have perished in the stone forest over the years. There are no whales to guide them down here. No song to lead them to the place that they would be reborn. Only the guardians. Would the guardians guide them instead? She listened for them in the forest; she could hear the echos of soft steps, the whispers and sighs… but not a howl or a bark or a snarl. The guardians are gone! She had known it without realising it.
They only come at night… and if they only come at night, where do they go during the day? They must know the way out!
Sabah didn’t know if the creatures of the forest were as the creatures of the sea - but Ozan had told her that every beast and fish in the water had a song, the same as the birds in the sky. If that were the case, then surely all the creatures of the land had a song too? But she didn’t know the guardian’s song. Still, it was the only hope she had. She would sing for them, sing for Asli’s spirit and Ozan’s memory. She would sing for her village by the sea.
Only those who are deemed worthy may pass through the stone forest… it is the guardians who decide. We have been running from them - when really we should have been asking for their help.
She set to work in the sea-grove, collecting the stones that had the ocean trapped within them and arranging them in a pattern on the floor to form a whale. When she had finished, the forest was in the grasp of a purple twilight.
It is time.
She lit what little was left of her wood, so she would be able to see her way, slung the satchel over her shoulder ready, and then sat inside the whale. She closed her eyes, steadying her nerves for what she was about to do, and then taking a deep breath, launched into the song of the spirits.
Aaaahhooooow, aaaahoooow, the night it has come,
Aaaahhooooow, aaaahoooow, the stars live in the sea…
“Aaaahhhooooooowwww!” the reply made her falter, but just for a moment. She renewed the song with vigour, the lilting rhythm drifted and echoed about the sea grove. When she sang and the guardians answered, it almost did sound like the song of the whales.
The last of the light vanished and her song ended.
Dozens of gems lit up around her. No - not gems. Eyes.
“You heard my song,” she spoke softly. “Please guardians - guide me. Guide the spirit of Asli.”
One of the creatures came closer, its eyes shining yellow-bright. As it stepped into the firelight she could see its form - half wolf, half dog, with blue-black fur.
It is the colour of the whale… Sabah felt hope well up within her.
The creature sniffed the gemstone whale, and then looked up at Sabah. Sabah respectfully lowered her gaze and held out her hand, trusting to fate. The guardian stalked forward and sniffed, and then gave her a soft lick. It turned to its fellows and yapped. The others responded in kind, and it turned back and placed its head against Sabah’s hand and allowed her to stroke it. It’s fur was surprisingly soft, and warm.
“Thank you,” she almost whispered the words. “Now please, take me home.”
The guardians led her through the frozen forest, trotting around her and her flickering flame. Sometimes they would run up to nuzzle at her legs, and sometimes dart off into the darkness. But the pack moved together, unfalteringly picking their way past the cold and silent trees.
Finally they came to a vast smooth wall, at the base of which was a tunnel big enough for the wolf-beasts to walk through. Sabah had to duck to follow them. A dim light shone up ahead.
Sabah emerged from the end of the tunnel into a large room, lit by glass lanterns. There was a pool of water, and cushions and bones were scattered about the floor. The guardians wagged their tales and snuffled about playfully.
They brought me home, just as I asked them to.
The blue-grey beast that had first approached her lifted his head and howled. The others joined the call.
“What are you doing back-” A man wearing the royal red and blue colours of the King burst through a door on a balcony above them. He stopped short when he saw Sabah standing among the wolves, and his jaw dropped.
“The guardians have found me worthy and led me through the forest,” she declared. “Please tell the King that Sabah of Balik has returned.”
The man was so surprised that he nodded and ran to obey Sabah instantly.
Sabah was brought before the King in his throne room. The hall was long and the windows open to a garden of fruit trees. Sabah could smell the earth and the grass and the wood. The gardens were lit by lantern and starlight. The King himself sat on a jewelled throne.
“Sabah of Balik. Never before has any soul that has entered my forest returned.”
“Apart from Taylan,” Sabah blurted out. “My friend Ozan told me of his tale; that is how I knew we needed the gifts of water, wood and steel.”
The King smiled.
“You truly believe his tale? No, there is no record of any “Taylan”, nor any other soul having escaped the forest. You are the first.”
Sabah was stunned.
“Never has anyone else been deemed worthy?”
“The forest was built to attract the unworthy. So that those with greed in their hearts and lust in their souls should leave our lands in peace. Tell me, what it is that made you different? Why did you enter the forest? And how did you escape it?”
So Sabah told the King the tale of her village. Of how she had listened to Ozan’s tales and played beneath the olive tree on the hill. She told of her hut and her boat and the fish and the shore. She told of the storm. She told of her journey to Narzard, her walk through the frozen forest and her night sleeping on the cold stone floor. She told of Asli, and tears came to her eyes. She told of her song and of the guardians.
The King’s heart was softened by the tale.
“I never knew that such woe lay in my beautiful forest. Always I thought it to be just and fitting that those who would reach for such riches would die among them.” He sighed heavily. “You have shown me what it is to be worthy, Sabah. I shall see to it that Asli is laid to rest with honour. And I shall release the others from the grasp of the forest. Perhaps it is time that its fruits should fall.”
And so Sabah returned home to the village by the sea, with her satchel of gems and her promise from the King. The village rebuilt and the villagers prospered. The King shared the wealth of the forest, and no longer did any soul disappear into the cold depths never to return. Sabah found Asli’s sister, Eda, and they became good friends and had many adventures together. And many years later children would come from far and wide to listen to Sabah’s tale, gathering at her feet under a young olive tree on the hill.