Forests of Grief

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Jury

A slow, rolling breeze blew through the trees in the forest behind the farmhouse, and the leaves began to rustle under the sinking sun. Michael shivered, and turned his collar up against the wind. The harvest had begun today. He heaved the unhitched plough into the barn, where the workhorse slept. Seif, his daughter's grey-coated dog, followed him into the barn and slumped impatiently while Michael coaxed his old muscles to move the steel behemoth into the barn. Straightening, he stretched his joints until they popped. Michael extinguished the lantern hanging from the rafter and called Seif as he shuffled to close the door. Her tail wagged and her tongue lolled out of her mouth as she padded her way across the yard. Michael smiled, recalling how Arthia used to run and laugh with Seif. The breeze swirled up in a momentary blast as the sun kissed the horizon. The old dog barked excitedly, her tail thrashing now as if driven by the wind.

"No need to beg there Seif, you'll get your dinner soon enough," Michael said, scratching her head. But she wasn't looking towards the door of their house. She was looking towards the woods. Michael followed her piercing gaze. There on the edge of the autumnal woods a figure in pale shadow stood. "Ho there!" He called to the figure, "You'd best come inside for some supper, you'll freeze with the weather turning!" But the wind died down, and with that Seif was calmed and Michael could no longer pick out the form. "Old eyes don't work the way they used to," he remarked to himself and trudged to his back door, letting Seif inside. The home was plain to the eye but filled with an aroma of turnip and venison stew. Not a king's meal, but compared to field rations the stew was a feast to Michael's nose. He fished out some hunks of meat and placed them on the floor for Seif, then he filled his own bowl to the brim.

"Swords to ploughs," he said, "one thing stays the same, Seif, you get hungry either way." She gave a happy bark and devoured her food. Michael smiled at this, whispered a shadow of a prayer and then ate his stew. He cleaned the bowls, swept the floor, washed the cook pot, dusted the mantle the way Maria did when Arthia was still a child, and oiled the old twin sword he still kept beneath his bed, though it was only half of a whole. He turned in for the night with Seif settling into her place curled at the foot of his bed.

Several hours of restless sleep later, Michael awoke to a pale moonbeam striking his eye. He turned over to slumber again when he felt the creeping chill of a draft wash over him. Springing up, he searched to find and close the door left ajar. Seif wasn't in her place. He flung on a cloak, grasped for a lantern, and instinctively drew his old sword. Shambling out the back door, he searched for where Seif may have gone. There! Across the farmyard, passed the barn, and along the woods he glimpsed a shadow moving deeper into the forest.

"Drat! Seif, we don't hunt until the weekend!" Michael called, taking off after the shape. Crashing through the undergrowth, he kept calling for his dog. The tree branches reached out to him, twig claws trying to hold him back. Tripping over a root, he landed with a knob of wood digging into his thigh. On the ground, the moonlight glinted off a silver tuft of fur caught on a tree root. He looked up and located a path of broken twigs and trampled bushes. Michael lumbered to his feet and hobbled along the path, a contusion forming where the root had struck his leg.

At last, the thick foliage cleared and the moon shone thereupon a brook trickling through the trees. This was the brook Arthia used to play in, and she later learned to hunt and fish along its banks with Seif. Light glanced off the glistening water and highlighted a shadow crouching upon a moss-covered rock on the opposite bank of the creek. Elated, Michael drew a ragged breath to call Seif's name, when the form stood upon its legs, and beckoned to him. This creature stirred a memory in Michael, though of what he did not know. The wind blasted another assault upon the forest and carried with it a sound like that of a howling dog. The figure opposite Michael leapt off the boulder and danced farther into the trees.

Clouds drifted in front of the incandescent moon, and Michael hesitated only a moment before hopping across the stream to follow the figure. He crashed through the forest again, this time determined to find the figure that took his Seif, the vestige Arthia left behind when she became a warrior.

Deeper into the woods he plunged, careening around trees, leaping over logs. The wind's barrage heightened when he avoided crashing into one trunk. Then, a phantom of pitch black emerged from the next oak. The ghost brandished its misty blade. Instinct drove Michael's sword into the shade, and it dissipated into mist. More creatures of night arose from the foliage around him, like many foes of old returning for revenge.

Youthful vigor seeped into Michael's limbs with each step, the familiar blade once again biting left and right to cut down those that stood in his way. "Where is a challenge!?" A shout tore its way from his throat, the voice belonged to a much younger, more vulgar man. This stirred the phantoms into a frenzy, as if they remembered his blade cutting them down before. Then a tree limb broke with a crack as of bones breaking, and Michael heard again the anguish he once caused. Those sounds that drove him to give up the sword many moons ago.

This stayed his blade but a moment, and the creatures of shadow closed in, unrelenting. Just as his falter seemed to doom him, a shadow of a different, grayer hue appeared at Michael's side, flowing and dancing betwixt the forms to stave off the attack. Michael swallowed his fear, as in his younger days, and pressed on.

The two fought together, advancing slowly one step at a time into those woods. Now Michael kept his elation in check, refusing to revel in the fight as he once did. Instead he focused on keeping his strange partner safe from harm. At last, he broke into a clearing. The moon reemerged from the clouds, and the wind calmed. In the center of that uncharted clearing stood a gravestone. Not a monument of grandeur or ostentation as for a great knight from days of old, nor a decrepit vile cairn marking the hasty burial of a thief. But instead a plain chiseled rock, a simple carving set a name into its smooth surface -- Arthia. Beside the stone lay Seif, deep brown eyes staring up at the stone, a soft whimper escaping her lips. She reminded Michael less of the aging gray mutt, but more of a majestic great silver wolf, despite her posture. Upon the grave sat the twin sword to Michael's own. He felt the strength sapped from his limbs, his body growing weak, and a twinge of pain in his thigh. Tears leaked from his eyes as he struggled to approach the marker. At last, he crossed the clearing and sank to his knees in front of it. He reached a shaking hand to caress the stone, as he used to caress Arthia's head while singing her songs of his adventures. A figure of moonlit shadow approached him, laying her hand upon his back as he let the tears fall, and Seif howled.

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