The village stirred to life before the sun was up. Dogs barked at each other, hens clucked in their coops, people stretched the sleep from their limbs. From her bed in the back room of a dingy inn, Tara could hear the landlady already clattering around in the kitchen. The smell of bacon grease saturated the air.
Tara sat up and yawned, the blanket sliding off the bed and onto the floor. She’d slept in her clothes again, she realized. Meant they’d be stiff with sweat by noon. She sniffed at them, and decided there was nothing to be done about it — anyway, she’d smelled worse.
She stood, relishing the feeling of feet meeting floor, the ache left over from a day of walking. The popping of her joints, the cool draft from the tiny window… moments of comfort before the hard day ahead. It would be a hot one, uncomfortable and heavy.
She’d walked for four days to get here. The stagecoaches (the fastest way of traveling further than the new railroads reached) only ran once every two weeks, and Tara had an appointment to keep. The place she found herself in now was barely a town, not much more than forty houses and buildings arranged haphazardly around a communal well. Modest farms and pastures ringed the center of town, and the ramshackle tavern she’d slept in stood facing the main road back towards civilization. On paper, this village was called Fenlay, after the man who’d first convinced his family to follow him out to the middle of nowhere. Its inhabitants, most of whom had moved here to work in the dangerous lumber business, rarely left.
Tara splashed stale water on her face from a basin on the nightstand. She gathered her belongings — a knapsack she hadn’t bothered to unpack the night before, her road-worn boots, and a long, thin rifle — and shut the door behind her.
Smoke from the kitchen fire filled the common room and hung heavy in rectangles of sun near the windows. The landlady barely looked up as Tara approached the bar and ordered breakfast. Tara ate in silence; the other woman didn’t seem in the mood to chat. Simple interactions took some getting used to, given how much time she’d spent on her own the past few years. As soon as she finished eating, the woman snatched the plate back from her. Tara counted out the money she owed carefully, set it on the table, and stepped outside.
The heat was oppressive. It was probably a little after eight o’clock in the morning, and already the temperature was creeping higher than she would have liked. By midday it would be unpleasant to be outside at all. Tara’s meeting was at noon, and so she had a few long, hot hours to fill.
She strode to the edge of the property, stuck her fingers between her teeth and gave a long, sustained whistle.
From the long, dry grass outside of the fence came a grey blur, which bounded towards her and came to a halt at her feet. The massive dog wagged his tail furiously, tongue lolling. He held his ground as Tara fished around in her pack. She pulled out a strip of jerky, and the deerhound whined.
“Sit, Pith,” she said. Pith sat.
Tara gave him the jerky. The dog took his breakfast a little ways away to gnaw at it. As he went, Tara could see a bit of blood crusted in the hair around his muzzle: some unlucky rabbit or bird, probably.
Tara strolled around the village, Pith in tow. There were no children, of course, but the men and women going about their days were busy and friendly enough. Several smiled at her as she passed, or pointed at the shaggy dog loping along beside her. A few houses had dogs of their own, but these scraggly mutts were smaller, and gave Pith a wide berth. In the garden of one ramshackle hut, an ancient hound with drooping eyes let out a half-hearted woof, causing a teenaged boy helping his mother with the yard work to look up.
Tara eyed him curiously. He was tall and thin, with a mess of dark curly hair and heavy eyebrows. One of the lucky ones — just barely too old to have fallen victim to the earliest tendrils of the Sickness. Tara flicked her gaze back to the road ahead. She felt his eyes on her for a long ways down the road, until the woman shouted at him to get back to his work.
The last building on the way out of the town was a wagon repair shop, Tara had been told. Its owner had left town with a logging expedition two days earlier, and it was here that she was to meet up with her contact. She was early, but hell — didn’t seem to be much else to do in town. Might as well wait here.
As Tara approached, a shape moved in the shadow of a stable.
The mycologist (whatever that was; Tara couldn’t seem to keep the meaning of the title in her head) was already there. It was a woman, wearing a silvery cloak with the hood pulled over her eyes. The edges of the fabric fluttered against her calves as she rocked backwards and forwards, murmuring to herself. She dropped into a half-crouch, hand darting to some papers spread out on the grass, then back to her feet. Her hands never stopped moving.
Tara placed her foot deliberately on a stick, which snapped.
The woman startled so badly that her hood fell part-ways off. Her skin was darker than Tara’s, soft and lined with years of concentration. Gray hairs framed her face, and her eyes were deep-set over dark circles.
Tara extended a hand. “You must be Professor Carns. I’m Tara, I was told I’d find you here.”
Carns recovered herself, pulled the hood back into place, and shook Tara’s outstretched hand. “Hello, yes, nice to meet you,” she said. “Oh, excuse me —“ and she bent to pick up the open books and notes arrayed on the ground. As she shuffled them, Tara eyed their contents. She glimpsed several maps of varying ages and crudeness, drawings of different mushrooms and strange plants, and page after page of indecipherable scrawl. The professor gathered the papers into a messy bundle against her chest — Tara winced as the drawings were crumpled — and stood back upright.
“You startled me rather badly, you know. This place really is quite close to the forest, isn’t it?” Her giggle was high-pitched, the ends of her sentences rising breathily into questions. “I’ve never been this near the trees. Fascinating…” She trailed off.
After a moment, Tara cleared her throat.
She shook herself. “Yes. The forest. Right. I was told you have experience navigating inside it?”
Tara nodded. “Not this area, exactly, but yes.” It wasn’t all a lie — she’d spent some years as a wilderness guide, leading the occasional hunting party through other forests and even the outskirts of the Border. It had been enough to land her this job, apparently, but it hardly made her an expert.
Carns, however, didn’t seem suspicious. “Excellent! And so impressive, the Border simply terrifies me! If you’ll look at this map —“ she unfurled a haphazardly rolled paper, “you’ll see that the site you’re to find is about four day’s journey into the forest. It should be a completely untouched ruin. That’s our best estimate from the records, anyway, but we only know so much from the Barnes expedition two hundred years ago — he wasn’t meticulous in his journal entries and we don’t —”
“Got it. Four day hike in. What am I looking for once I get there?” Tara wasn’t familiar with Barnes, nor did she particularly want to be. There were others on this trail, all of whom had gotten a head start on her, and she was itching to move.
Carns’ information was (hopefully) a lucky break for Tara. Many of her competitors had started in blind, desperate to be the first to produce any kind of lead on the Sickness and claim the reward. Still, if the professor wasn’t worth the time and resources she’d spent to track her down…
Carns seemed put out at having been cut off. She frowned as she continued. “As far as my research team can tell, you’re looking for two things. The first is fairly easy: bring back samples of any fungus or mycelium you come across.” She handed Tara a thick, leather-bound journal. “This book contains diagrams of all known species of naturally occurring fungus. If you find anything not listed here — or anything at all, really — collect a sample and bring it back. Here —“ and she pulled from her bag a handful of glass vials. “I’ve brought these containers for you to use. Make sure you make a note of where you collected each sample, as well — that is of crit-i-cal importance.” Tara took the vials, trying not to feel patronized.
Carns rattled on. “There aren’t too many mycologists on the scene today — not everyone finds fungi to be quite as fascinating as I — as my team and I do. We believe that there are countless undiscovered species in the recesses of the forest, entire ecosystems we can’t even imagine. This and other archeological sites may provide clues… or at least a reason to start looking!” She tittered. “If we find a new sample to analyze, we might be able to engineer some progress towards an antibiotic — well, regardless, you should find the ruined village somewhere in this —” she motioned with her finger “area. I do wish I could be more specific, but unfortunately the record isn’t clear. Barnes does describe at least one promising modern connection: a mass grave at the site, full of small skeletons — likely children.”
Tara ignored the old sinking feeling. “Excellent,” she said. Carns gave her an odd look, and she thought belatedly that that was probably not the best response to lots of dead children. “Let me see that map.”
She spent a few moments poring over the map Carns had brought, then shoved it and the mushroom field guide into her satchel. It wasn’t much to go on — just a few scribbles indicating a dauntingly large area of forest — but it was a start. And at least she had an idea of what she was looking for.
Carns was still talking: “I’m sure you’ve heard of the expedition that set out a few days ago?” Tara had — it had been in newspapers across the country. “It set out from here four days ago. The locals told me they’ve been clearing trees for weeks to make a road for their wagons and supplies; you can follow that until you catch up with them. You might be the first visitor to their settlement!” The idea seemed to be exciting to Professor Carns — clearly, the expedition’s publicity had had the desired effect.
Tara nodded distractedly. “Thank you, Professor. I’ll be heading out. Let’s go,” she said to Pith. The dog wagged his stubby tail and they turned away and began walking.
“Good luck!” the mycologist called after her. Tara gave a half-wave, relieved to have the conversation behind her. She had a route, and she had a long walk in front of her — away from people, she thought, and smiled.
Before leaving town, Tara stopped at the tiny general store to buy supplies for a long journey. She bought an excessive amount of dried food — enough to last her for three weeks if she was careful. No way of knowing how long she would be in the forest, she thought, or whether she would be able to find food once she was inside. Better safe than sorry.
Preparations made, she continued down the road towards the waiting trees.
The tree-line lay half a mile from the outskirts of village. At its edges, the Border didn’t look much different from the diminished forests still scattered around the country. It was made up of hazel trees, twisted around each other to form a short, dense canopy, which made travel between the trees difficult at best. A dirt road led from the village to the edge of the woods, shallow wheel ruts just visible in the cracked earth. The road had been carved into the trees, shadowed and dark even at midday. Tara had been inside the Border a few times (though she didn’t often admit to it — superstition was powerful and widespread outside of Alexandrea’s major cities), but this time… something made her stop and stare. The gaps between the trees had a way of whispering to you if you looked too long — they wove questions into your mind about what might be inside, what would happen if you left everything behind and walked, just walked, into the cool darkness under the spreading branches…
Tara shook herself. She needed a clear head if she was to have any chance of pulling this thing off. A week’s journey through the Border was something few had consciously attempted for decades; she herself had never stayed in the forest for longer than a day or two. If she was planning to return, triumphant or otherwise, she couldn’t afford to let her mind wander.
As the forest grew nearer, Tara turned to take one last look at the village behind her. At this distance, the rough frame houses with their wattle and daub walls were all a uniform mud color. Fenlay seemed like a quiet, peaceful place, and must have been a tight-knit community three years earlier.
That time was gone.