It was a mouse.
A small one, not a house rat but more of a woodland variety. Ireulun was not surprised. She was, after all, lost in a forest. But there were a few strange things about her current situation.
The most pressing one was that she did not, could not, remember how she found herself in the forest. There was a blank, a dark space, in between her last memory and the moment when she spotted the mouse. What has happened?
The other strange thing she felt concerned about was the forest itself. It was common enough; tall trees full of green leaves at the height of late summer. Trees as far as her eyes could see. There was nothing distinctive about the trees; Ireulun was never much a student of botany.
But despite the forest’s obvious largeness and health, there were no animals. No birds chirping in the canopy, no squirrels amongst the branches, no lizards basking in patches of sunlight on the forest floor. No animals in the silent, suspended stillness.
Except that small brown mouse.
Somehow, the sight of the only other living creature in the woods prompted Ireulun to approach it. The way it sat on the ground, so still and watching her, gave Ireulun the impression that it was... waiting. For her? To do what?
But when she approached the mouse, it retreated quickly. Darting through the underbrush and disappearing into the shadows. Ireulun gave a sigh of disgruntlement. So much for that. She supposed that she should had been looking for a way out of the forest.
“Hello?” she called out.
There was no answer. Ireulun tried again.
But only her echo returned her call. Ireulun suddenly had the distinct impression that she was the only person around. Alone. Angels and ashes, how did she get here?
As she raked through her memories, a chrip called to her. More a squeak than a chirp but it was loud and clear. The mouse? Where is it? Ireulun turned towards the sound.
A few moments later, she saw it, the mouse. It was sitting under a straight light shaft, its brown fur tinged with the sun’s glow. It was... doing nothing. But then it chirped again, loud and clear as before.
Then suddenly, it bolted again into the ferns and tall grasses, disappearing from Ireulun’s sight. She blinked and frowned. Then the mouse’s chirped cried out though the forest’s gloom.
It was calling to her was the thought that came to Ireulun’s mind. Why? Her next thought was the mouse was a spirit of the forest, not unusual perhaps, for a forest this strange. Ireulun may not be a student of botany, but she was an observant student of history.
She looked closely at a tree trunk, studying its bark and leaves. The trees looked like something from a place she was once been as a child, a Region very far away where people lived in vine covered homes built on giant trees.
Ireulun touched gingerly at the leaves. Her finger traced the lines of the tree’s bark and deducted that the species of tree was very much like those tree-houses of that far-away Region. But such spindly vine-trees do not grow straight from the earth; they grow on other trees.
The sound of the chirp repeated, this time with a somewhat irritated nuance. Ireulun no longer felt curious. She felt cautious. Nonetheless, she followed the sound, followed the mouse.
With every step she took and every sight she glimpsed of the mouse flitting through the patches of sunlight, she spotted other things. Broken things. Man-made things. There was no question about it.
A long thin object she at first took for a twig jutting awkwardly out of the ground turned out to be a dirty old wizard’s staff. The intricate designs carved on the handle were recognizable to Ireulun as from the northern tribe in the grasslands of her home Region.
A few meters away were another long object, this time a rusty sword. Ireulun crouch down low to examine it. The blade was dark with rust, pitted with holes in certain places. It did not look as if it had been used or discarded in a fight. It looked as if it had been abandoned there, ignored and forgotten.
Like the wizard’s staff, the sword had a unique deign which Ireulun recognized. The swirly patterns on the hilt suggested a knight of a high order, from a war-torn nation that was also in her home Region.
Ireulun discarded the sword and for a moment, she strained her eyes to look though the darkness of her surroundings. Between two trees, she spotted what looked to be a large, open trunk-box. Beside a rather large rock were several pieces of glittery that, at a second look, turned out to be expensive jewelry. And close to her feet, not far from the rusty sword, were broken pieces of glass vials.
And there was more, misshapen, often broken, but indefinitely man-made objects all scattered around her, intersecting between shadows and brushwood. All of then had a neglected, abandoned, forgotten feel. Suddenly, a chill grew in Ireulun spine.
The atmosphere felt like that of a graveyard.
A now familiar chirp-squeak cuts through her reverie. The mouse. It was still ahead of her, still calling out to her from the deeper parts of the woods. Ireulun debated whether she should continue following the creature. What if it was leading her into a trap?
Almost against her will, her feet dragged her forwards, and onwards. Her curiosity, coloured by a slight sense of fear, made her cautious. As much as she wanted to leave the forest, she wanted to discover its secrets. Her instincts were telling her that the mouse may be a key to the mystery.
Ireulun pressed on, careful not to disturb the objects in her path. Eventually, the air seemed lighter, less oppressive. The gloom of the woods faded as the forest canopy was higher and less thick. Through the shafts of sunlight Ireulun could see further ahead and noticed that there were more open spaces between the trees.
The underbrush was thinner as well and for the first time in a while, she could see the little brown mouse clearly. It ran quickly, darting over fallen trees and large boulders but it was never too far from her sight.
Then, just out of the way of the trees, Ireulun came to a wide clearing. It was a larger empty space, larger than any of the forest clearing she had been through. She could see high above the canopy, the tree branches. To her eyes, the tall trees and its branches intersect in an unusual way, giving the illusion of narrow windows flying buttresses. Just like in cathedrals.
No sooner had that thought entered her mind, she felt a familiar chill, only more welcoming than before. She felt as if she was in a sanctuary, a holy place. Looking on the ground around her, there was none of those pieces of neglected objects she had seen before.
And then there was the mouse. It sat in a shaft of light, a brighter sunbeam than any in the forest. It watched her, its small eyes stared at her with an almost expectant fixation. On impulse, Ireulun crept closer to it, so close, bending so low until she could touch it.
But then the mouse bolted into a tiny hole she did not notice before, a nest-like entrance made of dried grass. A mouse home, perhaps. Ireulun felt dejected. The mouse had done nothing more than just trying to get away from her.
So much for the mysteries of the strange forest.
But then, bending over the nest, she felt cool flat stone underneath her hand. Ireulun brushed away the fallen leaves and dried tufts of grass. What she uncovered was indeed a stone tablet, flat and large, like a tombstone that had fallen over. She traced the engraved words.
The alphabet was recognizable but the language was old. Ireulun looked through her mind, trying to remember her learning. She reads the words and translated them in her mind.
The Forest of Silence
If you can read this, it means that you are now a prisoner in the Forest of Silence. Here you shall stay in permanent solitary confinement for the rest of your living days, or until the Psychic Order reinstate a review of your criminal case, whichever comes first.
The trees will bear fruit, the roots can be eaten and the spring waters are clean and plentiful. But take the rest of your time and make your peace with the angels.
As she read, Ireulun’s hand shook with anxiety. At the bottom of the tablet was some additional writing, in the current language used that she recognized instantly. Unlike the rest of the message, the additional words were crudely craved, as if by a pointed stone rather than a chisel.
Angels knows I am innocent.
Ireulun felt a deep void grew within her. The forest she was in was actually a prison. An old prison for people to be forgotten. To be ignored. To be lost.
But how did she got here?
“Forest of Silence...” she whispered.
Suddenly she felt light-headed and dizzy. She struggled to remain conscious but the beam of light of which she was in began to grow brighter and hotter. Her hands shook, her body was paralyzed in the rising heat, though the stone tablet under her hands remained cool. Ireulun shook her head hard, her hands grabbing handfuls of soft dirt and grass.
But then the bright light waned. And slowly disappeared.
She opened her eyes slowly. Ireulun was in her familiar bedroom, in her familiar bed. Her hands were clutching the folds of her bedding. Light was growing through the windows as dawn approached and brought her to wakefulness.
As her breathing slowed to normal, Ireulun brushed the sweat off her feverish forehead. It was a dream. The forest, the mouse, the stone tablet had been a dream.
She turned to the desk beside her bed. On the desk were all her history and geography books, some lay open on its spine. An unfinished graph, a map of Ireulun’s home Region, lay open, waiting for her to continue drawing its mountainous ranges and coastlines.
As a student of history, she had been working on mapping the south-east corner of her home Region, an distant and unknown territory known for centuries as ‘impassable, dense woodlands’.
Ireulun now knows what she has to do.
She has to go to the Forest of Silence.