First there was nothing – all was still. Only green. Water dripped from a pale nostril, and cascaded down to the muddy ground below. Then, movement. The dripping point shook briefly, and sniffed. A second niff, and then the boy returned to his statuesque pose, a blurred shape among a forest of twisted and blurred shapes. His eyes darted and then froze; more alive, yet more still than anything else in the soaked woodland.
The rain was torrential, sending wave upon wave of wind whipped water down on Carlis. It hammered on his head and back with punishing force. Carlis crept forward through the undergrowth of the dripping forest, darting expertly from bush to bush. He could not avoid the rain, but a childhood spent almost exclusively outdoors and undertaking imagined undercover operations had left him highly sympathetic and attune to the shapes and movements of the forest. Coupled with his father’s expert teachings of hunting and survival, and although only ten, Carlis was more at home in the forest than any other place. Yet more than this; he understood it, and listened; it spoke to him as a friend. Carlis could wrap himself in its safety. He could disappear.
Again his eyes darted; surveying the route ahead.
He caught a familiar smell, and found himself remembering summer evenings and dances with his village to the sound of the horns and fiddles. It reminded him of the smell of his mothers cooked broth, wholesome and good. The feeling of family, and community enfolded him. As he remembered, he found himself engulfed in the warmth and safety of the village and his many friends. Faces darted across his memory. But then all was gone, and he was alone.
A new smell replaced the last. The smell of burning straw carried on the changing winds, from the roofs of the last village. Concentrating, Carlis felt the earth shaking, under the movements of the great chariots.
He must go deeper to find safety. The chariots would crush the forest beneath their great wheels, and all would be exposed, including him. Carlis darted around a particularly twisted and ancient tree, and dared a smile, as a familiar sight met his rain-blurred eyes. Two years previous he had last been this far from the village – his father had brought him. It had been one of the last things they had done together, before the accident. His now trembling fingers followed his eyes across the ancient carving in the solid rock confronting him.
A circle of four interweaving images stood proud, and as he brushed the persistent moss away, mapped out the choice he must make: Four elemental icons pointed in four directions: each a path to a secret place, unexplored since before his grandfather’s time. They had been created for just such an event, an age ago. Carlis exhaled through pursed lips. He realised he had no idea which route to take. And with no knowledge came no real choice; only luck. The thundering of impending hooves and whips seemed suddenly louder. He stepped towards an unknown fate.
Which path did Carlis take?
Wind. Fire. Water. Earth.