How long had I walked? I cannot say with precision. But many hours had passed since I was last able to see more than a hundred yards, through trees so dense that sometimes I could not even see the river I followed. Part of me was glad to be able to walk again, and breathe the air of the forest. I had been on a ship from Dantes across the bay, and then taken the long journey up the river Marnix to the border. Favourable as the winds blew, this journey was still one of many days, longer than I had ever been on a ship in my life.
Finally the trees opened up again, allowing a view of the river making a sharp turn northward. The sun was already setting, and I decided that the spot was fit to make a camp. There was a small field of grass here, and a small body of water beside it, likely a result of the river overflowing in the last rain season. It was more of a swamp than a lake now, but it would act as a little moat for my camp towards the woods. Judging by some droppings, stags had passed by here recently. Although no full guarantee against danger, it was a sign of life that comforted me slightly.
Looking down back down the mountain it was trees all the way down to Vusont, the border town from where I had set out on foot. No ships sailed beyond it, for between there and the highlands of Marea, the river was too treacherous going downstream, and nigh impossible going upstream. The land was truly wild here, and the lack of human life made it feel even wilder. The sailors had ridiculed me for my plans (or lack thereof), and told me I should have tried to find transport to the highlands by carriage. “A bear attacked me brother in those woods, took his eye!” one local told me, though from the scars on his own face I suspected he’d taken that eye himself in a fight. Others warned me of magic lingering in the woods. “Be careful,” a townswoman had said. “The faeries live in the trees.” But even their most rational of arguments I could not counter. Most of them did not know the true reason for my journey, and those that did, did not know me. I had made my decision, and the opinions of other men would no longer occupy my mind.
And so I put the thoughts of them aside. The sun had gone behind the trees, and I had work to do. Priorities were different here than in the so-called civilised world. Food, water and the warmth of a fire were of the most vital importance. For water I had the Marnix. And my last money had bought me dried food to last me a few days, so I enjoyed not having to hunt squirrels and rabbits for now. And I had a fire going quickly enough, for it had not rained for almost a week. But the true cruelty - or painful honesty? - of the wild, is that when these priorities are settled, there is nothing to occupy a man’s mind but his own doubts, dreams and regrets. And as soon as I sat down by my fire, these unwelcome companions broke my isolation.
“There’s no chance of turning back then?” asked the first.
“The decision is made,” the second replied. “Dreams will only be of the past now.”
“Dreams of glory, dreams of defeat,” the third lamented. “Ever repeating, but defeat always has the last word.”
Then there was silence, as I stared into the flames. Logs turned red, then black, and crumbled into ashes in what seemed like an instant. I threw on more wood, and the fire lit up the trees.
“My part has been played,” I replied to them in thought, though I knew they heard me. “I am old. I have fought my battles, I have won and lost. I cannot regret the latter, for I did what any man would have done in my stead. I am not done living, but I am done serving.” I looked at them, but they only stared into the flames. My eyes fell upon a tree, some twenty feet behind the fire. In the tree there was a hollow, which the flickering flames surrounded with light. Then I saw the keep of Nezcourt, its blackened walls even blacker by the shade of the sun that was nigh on breaking the horizon. In this twilight hour, moonlight still lit up the path of the riders who came to me. I decided not to flee then, and face my judgment. And I said out loud, “I am not fleeing now.” And I looked up, and I was alone.