By Zurk Mcgurk
The road was long and the night encompassing, but Gardain trudged ever onward. Clouds masked the night sky and the new moon, hiding any light that may have found its way to him. There were no glowing dots of villages on the horizon, no torches of his comrades. The only light on his path came from a small jar of fireflies tied to his belt.
"You'll need it." The old woman had told him with a twinkle in her eye. She certainly wasn't wrong.
As he continued forth, his ears were filled with whispers. He froze and looked around, but could see nothing but the faint outlines of trees. It would take more than whispers to unnerve him, he assured himself. He scowled and relaxed his shoulders before moving on.
He blocked the whispers from his mind and marched on. In time, the whispers melted away with the miles. His legs were weary, but his journey was nowhere near its end. He could sleep soon enough. In mid winter the night was too long to stop for.
As the witching hour approached the whispers caught up to him again. He fought them again, but to no avail. They only grew louder, and the night colder. His heavy breath trailed behind him as his pace grew quicker.
The whispers culminated in a deafening scream and he stopped and drew his sword, spinning around to where the scream came from. A feminine figure stood there, not a woman nor a creature. A walking forest, no bigger than he was, complete with grassy meadows and tiny trees. A magnificent glow emanated from where her heart should be. Gardain had never seen anything like her. There was a grotesque beauty to her that left him dumbstruck for a moment, though he quickly found his words again.
"Who are you?"
"I'd ask the same, Sir Knight," she said in a rough voice, "Rarely is a trespasser so foolish to come through my forest. You can put your sword away, I mean you no harm."
He lowered his sword but did not sheath it. "I'm a knight on a pilgrimage," he said shortly, "And you?"
She ignored him. "Tell me, child. How did you come by that jar of fireflies?"
Gardain nervously thumbed the edge of the jar with his free hand. "Who are you? Or is what the better question?"
She smiled a wicked smile and strode up to him. The glow on her chest, he realized as she drew close, came from a nest of fireflies, hidden in the roots of her body. "Perhaps it is. I am the Queen of the Forest. A spirit some might say. My true nature is unimportant. I allow your kind to wander most of the forest freely, but not here. This is my home and you are not welcome in it."
He thought better of telling her that he could barely tell one bit of forest from another. "You said you mean me no harm, and if I have intruded upon you I certainly apologize. Perhaps you could guide me back to where I may walk without bothering you?"
A wry laugh slipped from her lips. She grabbed the jar from his belt, freeing it. He made no moves to stop her.
"The old woman, she took those from you didn't she?"
"Yes, she did," a note of annoyance in her voice.
"That is a very good question."
"Why take them in the first place if she was going to return them?"
She didn't answer immediately, turning the jar over in her rough hands. "Also a very good question." She uncorked it and the fireflies flew out, surrounding them. "None are missing," she commented then turned her attention back to him. "Well, dear Knight, there is no need for you to be here any longer."
He tensed up, his grip tightening on his sword.
"Settle down, child," she said with a laugh. "You asked to be guided to where you shall not bother me? Well, here you go." She exhaled lightly, gently blowing the fireflies away. They formed a path away from the small clearing.
"Thank you," he told her softly and without another look back he followed the fireflies. He just wanted to get back to his pilgrimage. Not get involved in some conflict between a so called 'Forest Queen' and a daft old woman.
As he passed each firefly, it flew forward, forming an endless path for him. With a stubborn stride, he was determined to get out of the forest before he stopped to rest. Hypnotized by his own footsteps and the tiny fireflies, he barely noticed the hours pass him by. As the sky cleared and and the sun began to crest over the horizon, the fireflies stopped moving forward, and as he looked around for them, he realized they were gone entirely.
But the forest had thinned, and he could hear the calling of gulls ahead. He took another step and his leg wobbled, and for the first time he realized how tired he was. The soft whispers picked up behind him again and he shook his head.
"No more of this madness."