Other than the overwhelming sense of foreboding one felt from simply being present in Chimera Forest, the forest itself was much like any other save for two things: the mist and the creatures within it.
The mist gathered around them in such denseness that Benjamin’s difficulty in controlling the use of his gift proved rather useful to keeping the party together. If one of them would slip back, Benjamin could sense the panic of losing sight of each other and tell the others to stop.
“The creatures here…they are not searching for water, as in Paschar. Or food as in other places. They are constantly nervous. In constant fear of their life. They are hungry, but almost refuse to find food because the fear is so great,” Benjamin offered as they trudged along. The sudden arrival of tree branches or trunks that seemed to appear out of thin air in their path kept them from continuing at a steady pace.
“Even the animals that live here do not like it? Tell me, is that supposed to make me feel better, or worse?” Pitney asked.
“Both, I suppose.”
The floor of the forest was thick with ground cover. They knew this not because they could easily see it, but because of the crunch of leaves and twigs beneath them. The steps of the horses were soft, muffled by the thick layer of foliage that had settled on the forest floor.
“I know we don’t know exactly where we are going, but what does Yavin’s note say, again?” Since they had entered Chimera, there were only cryptic words on the ripped piece of scroll from Yavin and the distinct feeling that they were drawing near to something or someone that kept them on their current trajectory.
They were in unfamiliar territory, none of them ever having traveled this far in their lives. Stories, tall tales, rumors…most of what he knew were the little tidbits he had learned from Edward when he had returned from caravans along the trade routes. Trader’s talk, he had called it, hearing from those who had traveled further than a prince of Mirias ever need be. Some said you were likely to wake up in an area you hadn’t made camp at, as if the forest itself had changed your surroundings as you slept. Many were sure it was haunted; others claimed it was under powers of more gifts that were long lost to those who lived these days, while still others said it guarded deep secrets within it that only the right man could find. Even the Coills, who were naturally more adventurous, took great pains to avoid it. No matter the circumstances, every story had a moment when the story teller would pause and whisper the same thing: You feel as though you are constantly being followed by something…or someone.
Perhaps it was this thought that Benjamin’s nerves on edge. He could not decide if the idea was making him believe they were being followed, or if they actually were. The idea that he couldn’t read anyone but the four of them and the small forest animals did not mesh with the tales of traders. Wouldn’t he be able to read intentions of anything or anyone that would be able to follow them? And if they were somehow being followed without his knowing, was it Belda?
Though he couldn’t explain it, Benjamin felt much more certain that they would be greeted by who they sought, rather than happen upon her. There was no market trade to take place in Chimera Forest, no previously known markers on the road to note the distance of their travel. Traders often gave directions from what they knew to be a steady structure in nature. When you get to the tree with the snarled trunk, turn a bit right until you can just make out the two peaked mountain top from a break in the trees and continue on until you reach the rock with what looks like a face on it. Here, the only marker they had was the belief they were traveling the right direction on account of the trees.
“It says the same as it did an hour ago, Pitney. Your mother’s name. Chimera Forest. Stick to the trees. And no, I still have no idea what stick to the trees is supposed to mean. I cannot see hardly anything at all, and yet trees are all we seem surrounded by. Or perhaps we are setting about our task so well that we are sticking to the trees quite literally by running into them.” Edward tried to contain his frustration, but his patience was wearing thin. Ever since the close call in the tunnel with Yavin’s vex, Narbe, Edward had been able to use his gift mildly without feeling the same sense of exhaustion. It had somehow increased his tolerance for it. But not being able to see in mist or in shadow (because there wasn’t any, save than the trees that came to their path) was enough to make him go mad.
Far away, birds were sending warning screeches, alerting each other to the traveler’s presence within their sacred forest. Frogs croaked and the ground layer of the forest floor gave a small rustle, spooking Tuens and making him sidestep to the right before he regained his footing.
“Woah there, my friend. It was just a woodland creature. No need to be upset,” Benjamin whispered to his horse. But his attention had been on something else as the ground had moved. What Benjamin assumed was a tree darkened the mist in front of them and as soon as it appeared, it was gone, swallowed up in the familiar grey of their surroundings. Now, he searched for it again, wondering if he had been too distracted to see a mirage from Ottelo with clarity.
“Did you see that?” Benjamin halted Tuens for a moment as another twig snapped to his right. His searched for emotions, thoughts…but found only those with him.
“I suppose not. For wouldn’t we be coming up on it, now? Ottelo?”
“I did not throw anything right then, but I also missed what you saw.”
“Perhaps it was a shadow, then?” Even Benjamin didn’t believe his own excuse for it. “Can you even use Foresight in this?”
Edward looked up to more mist above him. “It’s foggy, not dark. My guess is that the live trees we encounter are either young and not tall enough as to spread a leafed ceiling above us or they are deadened at the top and have long ago lost their cover. I’m not much use while the sun is shining, but come nightfall, if this fog keeps up, even have the stars will not be light for us. Though it that hasn’t stopped my foresight from trying to come to the forefront. I have yet to see your mirages, Ottelo. How are you faring? I believe I saw a strange shadow darken the mist a while back, too, but when we passed by the area, there was nothing where I thought it should have been.”
Ottelo rode his horse up beside Edward. “Quite possibly me, yes. I have been plagued well enough. Though, I find the meeting between Pitney and Belda has my mind otherwise occupied. I fear she may be dangerous, though I can’t tell you why. Who would dare possess such knowledge and live here? Seems to me she must be hiding. But from what and why, I do not know. If either of you know anything, now would be the time-“
“I’m afraid we also do not know. The first we had heard of Belda was from Yavin, at which moment you and Pitney seemed to have a greater understanding of her than us.” Edward grabbed a dead branch that appeared from in front of him and snapped it.
“Was that you?” Benjamin asked.
“Yes, Ben…are you still on my right, then? Aw…there you are,” he said as Benjamin’s outline came into view. “Pitney? Are you close?” When there was no answer, “Benjamin?”
“I’m sorry…I lost my gift there for a moment. I brushed against a tree…a bush…or something…and it…distracted me. I can’t read him.”
“What?” Edward pulled back on the reigns and Regal snorted and stomped.
“I sense you. And Ottelo…but I have lost Pitney.”
“Pitney!” Ottelo yelled into the fog as he circled his horse around.
“Stop moving. Maybe he needs to catch up,” Edward said.
“Catch up? To us? Things he cannot see in this mist? I don’t need to remind you that he only wields his sword and nothing else.” Ottelo’s voice rose in panic. “Pitney!”
“It will do none of us any good to panic.”
“I am not panicking. Pitney!” There was no reply. “Perhaps he was the dark shadow you saw?” Ottelo asked Benjamin.
“Perhaps. But I am unsure of how he managed to be so far in front of us when only moments before he had been trailing behind.”
At Edward’s insistence, they kept their horses close as they back-tracked; the swinging tail of one often hit the snorting nostrils of the one behind them. There wasn’t much that could be said between them. They all knew what getting lost alone could mean for Pitney, but none were willing to say it out loud.
“Pitney!” Ottelo called for his best friend until his voice was hoarse. For what seemed like hours, they searched and called for him, until the mist starting turning dark and the sounds of crickets and owls began to be heard around them.
“Ot…” Benjamin wasn’t sure what to say, his gift strongly suggesting that Ottelo was both frightened and incredibly angry, but also told him that Pitney was nowhere near them.
“Ottelo, we must trust that Pitney will find his way, but we have as much chance of finding him as he does of finding us in this forest at night.” Edward was saddened they were separated from him, but if they didn’t make camp or find shelter soon, they were going to be faced with whatever they ran into in the dark and Edward didn’t want to run into anything. If the trader’s stories were true, they were being followed at all times, by something.
“He’s alone, Prince Edward. Without gifts. With naught but his sword to fight whatever it is everyone promises us this forest will bring…” Ottelo let his voice trail off, unwilling to speak of losing Pitney. Rarely had they been separated before, save a few, brief encounters of illness as children, a few special occasions reserved only for royalty, and the unfortunate incident during sparring.
“I, too, fear for him. And I am sorry to have, at least for now, lost his company and his sword. But there is no point in all of us becoming lost, or losing our way. Would Pitney not follow the direction we had all previously agreed upon? I for one, think Pitney would try to continue, hoping our paths will cross as we travel. He is rather adept as his sword. Anything, any foe, he might come across had better be quite formidable.” Benjamin’s words were softly spoken.
“Yes, Benjamin. I suppose you are right.” Ottelo subconsciously rubbed the scar on his chest in remembrance that proved Pitney’s abilities. “Pitney would rather lose his own life than to forfeit the life of the princess.”
They reluctantly made a small camp for the night, ensuring sight of each other and their horses, taking turns being on watch. When the mist lightened during Ottelo’s last shift, they were all surprised they had spent a night without incident. As they ate breakfast, they wondered slowly around to the horses, careful to keep a watchful eye on each other and an ear out for Pitney. Benjamin searched again, for another person within his range of ability, which typically was the area of someone who could hold an only slightly loud conversation with him. If Pitney were yelling for them, they would hear him first before Benjamin could read him.
“Ben?” Edward asked as he heaved himself onto Regal and rode close to Ottelo.
“No, nothing. I’m sorry, Ottelo.”
“We will find Pitney, my friend.” Edward grasped Ottelo’s shoulder in reassurance.
Again, their journey was made in silence…the events of the day before weight heavily on all their hearts. Even the creatures had seem to go silent and the drudgery of the mist was affecting their usual hopeful spirits.
“May I ask, Prince…does it hinder you that Pitney cares so deeply for my sister?” Benjamin finally spoke for some form of noise. He asked with a manner that made Ottelo willing to answer such a personal subject.
Their horses, still tail to nose, sniffed and snorted, as if they too wished to know the answer. Benjamin quickly assessed their emotions; nervousness, but not abnormal considering where they were.
“I suppose it did, at first. Pitney was the first to greet her when she arrived and was rather taken with her.”
“Yes, I believe I mistakenly took him for you. I must have been nervous, for I knew you to not be so tall or dark.” Edward chuckled without thinking. To his relief, Ottelo also laughed a bit.
“That, you did. Pitney has since spoken very highly of how gracious your sister was in that moment. Though, I must admit, I have never heard him speak a word against her. It is I who has questioned our binding. I hope…I may speak freely amongst you, for our travels have made you my friends.”
The other two gave their consent and affirmation of friendship. Ottelo told of how he questioned her assertiveness and willingness to argue, her obvious habit of getting what she wanted, to which her brothers gave hearty laughter to, indeed. The lightness of the conversation was most welcoming to them all.
“She and Pitney got along beautifully, of course. He is freer with his charm and rather handsome if the ladies at court giving their attentions to him are fair markers of looks. Only once and only because the mist hides my face so well, will I admit out loud that I am concerned that she rather preferred Pitney over me. And in all honestly, she would not be the first that we had commonly enjoyed the presence of.”
“Well then, let me try to ease your fears, friend. Do you recall the last Festival of Providence? I believe we competed in the archery competition?”
“I do. It was not long after I had recovered from a sparring wound and I was still gravely sore. If I recall, my soreness was the only thing that kept me from beating you out.”
“Yes. I won that day, that day though I’d like to think it was my skill rather than your injury. I believe the reward was a hammered bracelet…” Edward let his words trail off, remembering how proud he had been to wear Lady Kaelah’s token and then present her with the bracelet. It was not long after he betrayed her by accepting Foresight and now, she was lost to him forever. He may have lost the chance for love but he certainly would see his sister happy, if Ottelo was the man of her choosing. “Our sister watched you bow to her, words stammering from her mouth about how fantastic you were to watch compete…then stared after you so long Pammy finally nudged her arm in protest. Later that evening, she marched into our father’s chambers unannounced, and declared her immediate adoration of you. Could you imagine? The chambers of the Great King…barged into by a love-struck child? Rest assured, Ottelo, our sister was very much infatuated with you.”
Ottelo could feel his ears burn red from embarrassment over Edward’s story. While the missing Pitney was still on his mind, hearing this of ReAnne managed to take some of the sting away.
“I could not bind myself to a woman Pitney did not like, as I intend to keep him in my council, always. I must find him, you understand. He is like a brother to me.”
Edward and Benjamin nodded their heads in understanding. Bonds of brotherhoods, blood or no, were hard to come by and even harder to let go.
“I do not have much choice in the matter for now. Let the Provider be with Pitney. Let us be on our way.” Whether infatuation of a young girl would translate into love of a young woman was yet to be known, but it gave Ottelo a sense of hope and a renewed sense of purpose. He would save ReAnne’s life. And find Pitney.