In a far-flung corner of the known world, a boy wakes up and stretches his limbs. It isn’t yet light out, and his siblings are sprawled and snoring on mattresses shoved against each other. His mother’s sleeping form is a low hump against the far wall.
The boy crumples up his scratchy blanket and sets it where his head lay a moment ago. He stands, wobbling, and steps gingerly over the prone figures all around the tiny room. He makes his way to the door, muffling the sound of its hinges.
And then he’s outside, and we can see that the house he’s come out of isn’t much of a house at all. It’s more of a shed, really — a shack with patchy white walls and a paltry garden out front. There’s a small stretch of farmland behind it, and from the rows sprout the beginnings of plants.
The boy doesn’t linger in the dark outside the door for long. His bare feet crunch against the dirt road as he runs, faster and faster until he’s sprinting. He tires out quickly, relaxes into a jog. The sky is starting to brighten behind him when he comes to a stop at the feet of the looming trees. The forest, impassive as ever, frowns down at the teenager.
The boy, for his part, doesn’t seem to know what to do now that he’s gotten where he was going. He shifts his weight, still panting and sweating from his breakneck run. He edges closer to the forest, staring into the gaps as though trying to read a message written there. He drops into a crouch, picking at his scabby hands and knees and rocking slightly. Minutes drip by as he hesitates, ruminating. His fingers fiddle with something: we can see that it’s a large silver coin.
The sky is red and pink behind him.
The boy (we’ll call him Eli), slumps his shoulders. He stands dejectedly, turning his back on the whispering trees. The forest has defeated him again. The walk back will take all the time he has left before his mother wakes up, and he wants to be on her good side today. Being on her good side is the safest option. The last time he didn’t finish his chores, things had gotten ugly. He isn’t worried about impressing his brothers. His brothers have only bad sides.
Eli doesn’t run home, though. He takes his time on the dusty, summer-scorched road, kicking rocks and twisting to look wistfully at the forest. One day, he thinks. One day he’ll get his chance.
Somewhere else, somewhere many miles away, a young man is washing his hands. He knows the value of cleanliness in his line of work, and he takes care to scrub under each fingernail and behind the thumbs. The metal slab behind him is lit by a single swinging bulb, which tosses shadows and reflections on the bottles and jars arrayed around the room. The young man’s hair is lit as well, and it catches our eye: a shocking white, white as an old man’s, and yet he can’t be more than thirty. He’s a ghost draped in the white of his lab coat.
The slab is what we should avoid looking at. It’s nothing special on its own, just a long thin table. No one could fault you for not bothering to look at it.
The man turns away from this washbasin, flapping his hands to dry them. He steps up to the table, and we have to look now. No more averting our eyes. The table isn’t empty. There’s a sheet covering most of it, and under the sheet —
Well, the man whisks the covering away, and there’s a body. It’s a little body, no more than four feet stretched out on the slab. It shouldn’t bother you — after all this time, who could blame us for being hardened? Children used to die all the time here. Not quite as much anymore.
But we aren’t hardened. The face proves too much to look at, we’ve seen enough of this kind of death to want to see no more. As the doctor begins his work, we can leave the room. We are still allowed that.
And in a different place, we see an old, old man, hunched by a fireside. He’s wringing his hands, twisting the mottled fingers around each other over and over. The fireplace is grand, with carved beasts and vines twisting their way out of the light, and above the mantle hangs a painting.
The old man tilts his head to see the painting, and tear tracks on his cheeks catch the light. His eyes are set deep in his skull, but we see them fix on the painted faces of a boy and a girl, well above our heads. His shoulders shake, and he crumples.
In the dark above the firelight, the children watch, impassive.
Adults working in the palace remember the prince and princess as spoiled. Everyone knew it, but nobody really minded. The twins were just kids, and despite all the luxury and excess, they weren’t so bad. Princess Alba and her brother Roman had the run of the castle, but they weren't quite as bad as their older brother had been. Mischievous, yes, but not cruel. They were the apple of their father’s eye.
Outside the palace, in a modest house in the middle of the city, three boys used to run amok. They were rambunctious when separated, destructive in a group; the neighbors are only now getting used to their absence. The only thing that quieted them was when their infant brother (the last, their mother declared to anyone who listen) needed sleep.
On a farm far from the city, a little girl played quietly with dolls made of fabric scraps and sticks. She imagined being a mysterious hunter in the depths of the forest, and also a seamstress of beautiful dresses. All her siblings would love her dresses, but she would work for a more prestigious clientele. The dresses she made would be so beautiful only queens could wear them.
These are old stories. These children are gone now, but you remember them, even if you don’t know their names.
We find ourselves back in the present, outside a small town, built of stone and fences and the care of generations. We see a graveyard, rows of stone tablets giving way to wooden ones, which in turn give way to freshly filled graves. Many aren't marked.
There are families, here. Men and women coming and going, crouching over graves, putting out their hands to touch the earth. Their faces are the same: old, tired, and dead. Some weep, but many more look only numb.
And elsewhere: we see faces full of loss, on men and women in fine clothing and in rags. From houses balanced on stilts above surging waves, to tenements in crowded cities, to forest huts and sprawling mansions. Every face has those lines, those eyes, that blankness. How can we understand? We see no children, only aging parents and aunts and uncles and shopkeepers and noblemen and seamstresses and farmers.
This is Alexandrea: a nation that spans the known world. A kingdom of deserts and grasslands and fog-wrapped forests. And oceans, of course: endless, turbulent oceans that eat daily at the coastlines and toss fishing boats like bath toys. What lies across them, we can’t say. If any boats have reached another country, they haven’t returned to tell.
And, of course, there’s the Border.
The stories of the great forest that cuts across the continent are many and varied, but there is one universal truth to them. The Border is a barrier more effective than any wall could be. It goes on forever, never thinning or breaking, and every citizen of Alexandrea knows from the time they can talk that there is no end to it. No one comes back once they've gone in.
But times change, of course. People forget their fear, and they begin to wonder whether they’ve outlasted the danger. They have compasses now, they’ve invented guns! Travel is safer and easier than it’s ever been, and Alexandrea is fast becoming a modern nation, fully explored.
And so, a year before the Sickness strikes, an expedition was planned. The Border would be settled, inch by inch, and the shadows pushed back. A tiny logging town at the forest’s edge would be the staging point for twenty brave explorers as they set off to build an outpost in the depths of the woods. The trees there are said to be taller, broader, better for building. The other forests of Alexandrea are depleted, and the wood would be good for the nations’ architects and builders. In the face of progress, the stories of the terror that awaits travelers from the forest seemed far-fetched. And then people started to fall sick, and children begin to die. The expedition, delayed for years already, came to represent hope. A chance, maybe, to start over.
So, in the small logging town, the men gather their things. They say goodbye to diminished families, expecting that they’ll return. It must be hard to watch them go — even out here, far from any major cities, the Sickness swept through the town like a freight train. But the expedition goes forward, with no pomp or circumstance on its departure but the waving of spouses and the stamping of the mules that pull the carts. They leave town, heading east.
As they reach the edges of the Border, each member of the party silently retractes the decisions that led him here. The trees are as dark and twisting as every story they’ve heard. Some of the men are from the nearby village, and have been here before. They’ve scouted ahead, lived their lives in the shadow of the trees; but these look, if anything, even more nervous. This is it: they’re finally doing it. They’ve made this commitment, but it strikes them that they might never see their homes again. There’s a gust of wind from behind, and the fabric of their clothing flaps and beckons them into the waiting forest. The mules snort and shake their harnesses.
Then the moment passes, and they’re under the cover of the branches. It isn’t so bad here — for weeks, preparations have been made inside the forest, trees cut and dragged aside, underbrush cleared to form a basic road. The logging crew feels better now: their decision has been made. They carry pistols, and one of the carts is loaded with more weapons: axes and guns and all kinds of ammunition. No one has ever made it through the forest, true. But no one has ever been this well prepared, either. When the road they’ve prepared ends, a day’s travel in, they’ll build their new settlement and begin life as outpost dwellers in the forest. The possibilities are intoxicating.
In the trees above, a figure watches. She’s been following their progress, though none of them have seen her. Her dress, dirty and white, hangs loose around her knees, and she tucks strand of white hair behind her ear. As the men below pass in the trees, her lips split into a smile.
One last scene: the road stretched to the ends of the earth, one long, unbroken line of dust and swaying grass. A tall woman walks alongside the road, avoiding the deep wheel ruts cut into the dirt. Snakes use them as shelter in the hottest parts of the day, and Tara knows better than to risk being bitten all the way out here.
She unhooks the canteen from her hip and takes a long drink. Her hands are large and dark, crisscrossed by scars. She replaces the canteen on her belt, her fingers tapping an idle rhythm against her leg.
The sun is already most of the way to the horizon when she first sees the lights of the town. Her destination sits huddled on the horizon about two miles ahead, where the plains she’s traveled for days begin to give way to sparse trees and brush. Small farms lie outside the main cluster of buildings, windows winking yellow in the growing dark. It’s a tiny village, Tara’s been told: not much more than a few streets of wooden buildings, and none more than a generation old. A logging town, built for access to the nearby forest.
And there, on the horizon, is the forest.
The Border appears at first as no more than a thin line of darkness on the horizon. As she draws closer, Tara can get a better sense of what she’s seeing: a wall of trees, silhouetted black against the setting sun. Each day, the stories said, the forest pulls the sun down into themselves, swallowing the light as it swallows any who enter.
The lights of the village are close now, and Tara forces herself to ignore the nerves that twist in her stomach at their proximity to the forest — a half-mile away at most. She’s finally made it, and now she needs to rest.
The air inside the deep parts of this forest is thick and warm. Breezes are conspicuously absent here, stopped miles away by the endless tree trunks. It's dark -- the sun never touches the ground, and during the day tiny shafts of light drift far overhead. These don't fall past the upper halves of the mammoth trees, and the floor remains in perpetual gloom. Nothing stirs until night settles in, suffocating blackness seeping up from the earth as the sun sets. The dirt holds little that sustains life, and only in these darkest hours of the night do tiny creatures begin their hunt for tinier prey.
On the outskirts of this silent world, the forest begins to be recognizable. Grass grows once more, and bird song can be heard. Soon there will be paths, then roads, and finally towns and villages full of farmers and businessmen, livestock and laughter.
For our purposes, however, we will turn back to the dark.
We are among the trees again, in a sort of ever-twilight. You can’t see them clearly, but two shapes have just emerged from between the trees. The first: an indefinite mass that towers overhead, walking slowly and purposefully. It’s surprisingly easy to miss, although it is very dark. Its footsteps make no sound.
The second shape draws the eye much more readily: tiny in comparison, flitting along at the huge creature’s feet. This figure shimmers, white and luminous in the gloom. It's a girl, her hair long and tangled and white. Her skin is corpse-colored.
The beast she walks with looks down, and in the shallow light resolves into a bear. In the empty stillness of the giant forest it is impossible to tell whether the girl is very small, or the bear very large. Its eyes are black and radiant; hers are a blank, empty white, devoid of pupil or iris.
The girl skips over a massive root. She’s humming to herself, the sound hollow in the silence. It’s barely audible — was she humming at all? You could swear you'd heard her, but when you listen… nothing.
She looks up at the monstrous bear as it pads along.
"So, what do you think?" Her voice is startlingly normal -- it could be any girl's voice: a little rough, maybe, but cheerful.
A second voice drifts down, deep and rumbling as it echoes through your bones. It's an ancient sound, long dead and forgotten, one that you know in your heart should never have been heard by ears such as yours.
"I don't think anything… yet."
The girl nods, smiles. She knew the answer before she asked, just as the bear -- for what else could be the owner of that voice? -- knew that she knew. It helps the girl to talk. Reminds her of a time long before, of a warm fireside and stars that will never see these skies again.
She vaults a fallen branch, bare feet flashing silver in the dim light. One mammoth paw glides silently past. The air does not stir.
"Do you think they'll try to stay?" The thought amuses her, and she laughs, so softly.
"If they do…" the great voice pauses for a moment. One eye, just discernible in the half-light, peers down at the wisp-girl.
"We'll make them leave."