I sank to my knees, looking up in wonder at the strength of this ghost. I could feel it gazing at me expectantly, waiting. “I… I…” I stammered, looking helplessly around for some clue of what to say. Finally, I drew in a deep breath. “P… Please be free.” The words spun out, echoing in the quiet thicket. “Your body has been found. I will bury it as properly as I can and give you any honors of which I’m capable.”
The ghost rushed toward me and I scrambled backward, nearly screaming again in terror at the thought of his touch. He was gone before he even got close, fading into the sunlight like a wisp of smoke. I cowered alone in the thicket with the corpse, one hand hugging the heavy sword to my chest and the other tightly gripping the pile of bone fragments in my dress pocket. I let out a long slow breath, my hands shaking in relief. I put the heavy sword down gently, crawling through the thicket back toward the shallow grave.
The terror was gone and without it even the body seemed different, like something unimportant a fond friend had left behind. I looked it over casually as I dug it free. Inside a still sturdy leather pouch I found a pair of dirty gold coins and gasped, quickly slipping them into the small pouch I wore around my neck. It was more money than I’d ever seen in one place.
The rotten dagger I pulled free from the ground was dull and covered in rust, but the blade was still strong enough to help me scrape out a decent grave. It was hard, slow work. The thicket was deep and healthy, the roots weaving together deep below the ground. I smiled when I was done, trusting the heavy branches to add to the grave, continuing to protect and mark it.
I gently lay the remains inside, covering it with dirt and branches, bracing it with rocks and the roots of the thicket, silently willing the plants to grow quick and deep to hold his body in place. I finished and stood, tearfully reciting the words of blessing I’d learned when I was just a child, asking the New Gods to grant his soul rest and entry into whatever realm would allow it peace.
I whispered my thanks and bent low, carefully retrieving the heavy saber. I took my time, crawling free of the tangled mass of thicket. My hands were raw and bloody and my head and stomach ached with thirst. The late afternoon sun streamed through the heavy trees on either side of the deep gully I found myself in, but nothing looked familiar. I could be anywhere. The restless roamed the mountains for leagues in every direction. I shook my head and slipped off the rock I’d been leaning against. The gully walls were steep, but it looked like it narrowed further in. With luck I could climb one of the sides to higher ground and try to get my bearings.
My mind ran with dark thoughts, wondering if I even had a home left to go back to. Thoughts of my friends, of Varya, of Master Owen, of all that I knew and found safe swirled through my mind. Thoughts of them butchered and burning in the grass kept drowning out everything else. I shook my head, trying to push away the thoughts while I walked, focusing only on the ache in my body and the effort required to keep going.
When I reached the top of the gully I slumped, collapsing to the ground and panting for several minutes. My arms and legs ached from the climb, but I managed to haul myself back to my feet and look around, my shoulders sagging with the lack of familiar sights. I grumbled in frustration, cursing under my breath and walked along the ridgeline to still higher ground, hoping it would help. If I couldn’t find anything familiar then I needed to find something that wasn’t endless forest. A river or a road, any landmark I could use.
I reached the point of the ridge with the sun already half setting. The long heavy shadows of early twilight stretched over everything in sight distorting shapes and distance. I sighed weakly and turned away, easing myself back down the ridge a small distance and wedging myself in amongst the tangle of roots at the base of an old tree, thankful the nights were warm. My dreams were dark. Armies of skeletal soldiers chased each other through the forest, screaming unheard battle cries through useless mouths.
I leapt awake after midnight, the woods around me dark and full of the unseen. The point of the ridge was a solitary island of stability surrounded by a sea of mist. My skin tingled with anticipation and twice I watched shifting patterns of light sift aimlessly through the floating clouds. Each light was another restless soul who had died somewhere in the mountains while the mist owned the ground. I watched them pass and shuddered, drawing my cloak tighter around me and wondering if I’d be joining them.
The cold mist clung to everything, stealing the warmth of my body. I wrapped my arms around my waist, hugging myself tight and trying to shake off the sense of dread. The fingers of my hand brushed my pocket and something rattled. I froze, coming slowly aware of the odd weight at my side. I blinked down at my pocket and reached inside, my fingers closing around a fistful of ancient bone. My eyes widened with terror. It was the remnants of the skeletal hand I’d scattered in my first panicked flight from the grave. I’d somehow forgotten to bury them.
I blinked down at the bones in my hand, trying to understand. I’d spent all day walking and working, I couldn’t fathom not noticing them before. The cold, rough surface of the bones played against my skin and I suddenly remembered I had noticed them before. I’d been noticing them all day. The soft, comforting weight in my pocket: reassuring and welcoming.
I shook my head, wondering at the strange memories. Part of me wanted to throw them away; fling them swiftly into the mist and run screaming in the other direction. They were a reminder of all that had happened and everything I wanted to forget, but holding them in my hand was also like holding a piece of myself. Like finding something I’d lost a long time ago.
A stray thought tickled the back of my mind. A memory of the stories my adopted father used to tell me. They had been full of signs and portents, omens and harbingers; little hints to show you the way when you were lost. What if these were similar? What if I could use the strength they’d given me all day? I straightened and closed my eyes, smiling at my own foolishness as I let the bones trickle through my fingers to the ground. “Where do I go from here?” I whispered.
The rattle and clack of the bones faded into the surrounding mist as the last bone slipped from my fingers. I shook my head laughing and looked down. Most of the bones lay together in a heap. Only three stretched forward, a perfectly arranged finger of bone pointing away into the darkness. I skittered back into the recesses of the tree where I’d been sleeping, shaking my head. My heart pounded in my chest and I felt dizzy. I shook worse than I had before, pulling my hood over my eyes and wrapping my arms around my legs, trying to tell myself it was just a dream.