Monday, 2 June 2014

Azaria Locations: Galgiza Forest

My next location is the dangerous Galgiza Forest, where Eliza's story begins. Found in the north-west near Bane, it's notorious for being the most dangerous woodland in the entire kingdom. Whether it's wolves wanting to maul you, bears wanting to eat you, or bogs threatening to drown you, it's certainly no place for a picnic.

For a taste of the Galgiza, read the first chapter of The Binding below...

Stock credits:
Main treesTree brushesFoliage 1, 2, 3SkyStumpForegrass

‘She hid her heart deep within, while the world begged to see its light once more...’
—Tale of the Binding

The first thing that struck me that night was the colour of the moon. It shone a brilliant blue, like the river Fende on a summer’s day. Perhaps not surprising, as it was the eclipse season, and it could turn anything from green to orange, even purple. But I’d never seen it like that before, and it brought a smile to my lips. Blue was my favourite colour, and I’d take any small comfort when forced to spend a night out here alone. Even though I’d been visiting the forest every month for almost two years, I never did look forward to it.

A crisp wind cut through the branches, and thousands of leaves sighed as one. My stomach tensed, and I scanned the clearing. I knew it was empty, yet the moment I relaxed my guard, something bad would happen. Or so I kept telling myself. No matter how often I heard the same creaks and rustles, I was as jumpy as the first time I came here.

Because getting caught would spell my doom.

I ran a hand through my hair, twisting the curled ends round my finger. It really wasn’t fair. It all started on my fifteenth birthday, when I’d fallen under that stupid curse; same as my sister and my mother. It was almost too horrible to be true. It changed everything, robbed me of my future, and forced me to sit in this tiny clearing once a month for the rest of my life. Pretty awful birthday present, to say the least.

Yet as angry as I was to become a victim to the Binding, I promised I wouldn’t let it rule me; that I wouldn’t end up like my sister. So every month, when my courtship began—the ‘danger’ period—I had to hide from the world, because if anyone came in contact with me, I’d become Bound. My heart would be tied to another’s, forever. And at the tender age of seventeen, I wasn’t keen on an unseen magic manipulating my love life.

Luckily my village, Velwall, sat near the Galgiza forest, and that made a good hiding spot. Nobody came here this late, and this kind of seclusion was exactly what I needed. Although the first night I spent out here was a bit of an adventure. I’d mapped out a path that avoided the animal dens and swamps, but half a mile into the woods I stumbled across a lost fox cub. That wouldn’t have been so bad, if I hadn’t trodden over its tail, earning me some battle wounds.

I glanced to the scars on my wrist. Those were pretty tame, considering what else lurked in the Galgiza. It ranked amongst the most hazardous forests in Azaria. Wolves and bears clashed in territory wars, bogs swallowed up unwary travelers, and hunters’ traps didn’t discriminate between hungry animals and lost wanderers.

Yet I’d worked the unfriendly terrain to my advantage. Before my second bout of courtship, I explored the area with my best friend, Adam. After days of searching, we came across the patch where I now sat. A close crop of thorny bushes kept unwanted animals away, and a smooth tree stump became my personal throne. I used to bring a knife for protection, but once I’d seen attack was impossible, I no longer bothered. My thicket was just too much effort to get into when there was easier prey elsewhere. The best feature was the gap in the canopy that let me stargaze. It was surprising how boring it could get when I had to spend hours in the dark by myself.

No wonder I’d become such a daydreamer.

Another breeze sliced past, and I huddled into my jacket. It was my favourite; a deep brown serge lined with wool, though it wasn’t quite thick enough for the cooler temperature. I’d have to bring some warmer clothes when I was under courtship next month. Which reminded me, Adam still had my scarf.

I grinned. I was looking forward to winter. My parents hated the four months of snow and ice, but for me it was the best time of year. It was when I could spend time with Adam. Two years ago, when he turned sixteen, he’d followed in his father’s footsteps and started training as a Guardsman soldier in our nearest town, Bane. So for most of the summer I barely saw him. Yet he had leave every winter, and that was when we’d catch up. In fact, he was due home tomorrow.
Hopefully this month’s courtship would pass quickly.

My eyelids grew heavy, and I yawned, glancing to the moon again. Wow, was it only midnight? I swore I’d been sitting here for longer. Still, much as I longed for the warmth of my bed, I needed to remain alert. A second’s lapse was all it would take to destroy two years of hard work.

I drummed my fingers against the tree stump. I’d hardly call myself musical, but if I concentrated on something, I was less likely to doze off. I’d made that mistake before and had been lucky to escape. Someone had decided to go hunting this side of the Galgiza, and as dawn approached, he came within inches of where I hid after my run-in with the fox cub. Thank the Goddess, the man had taken the western trail and left me alone. Had he run into me, it would’ve been a complete disaster...

A grunt from the bushes made me stop drumming. The hair on the back of my neck prickled. What was that?

Keeping as still as I could, I peered through the darkness. I regretted admiring the coloured moon earlier; the light had ruined my night vision. I hoped this was another false alarm, but a tightness in my chest told me I wouldn’t be so lucky.

The grunting came again, closer. It was heading towards the gateway to my protection zone. I sucked in a breath. The twin oaks guarding me were a double-edged sword. On one hand, the narrow gap kept larger creatures away, as it was too difficult for them to crawl through. On the other, it was the only way out, making for a natural trap. Sweat began to pool in my palms. What was out there?
Heart thundering, I tried to come up with some possibilities. A wolf wouldn’t prowl this way; the thorns were too thick, and I was sure the wind would hide my scent from their hungry fangs. A bear wouldn’t be patient enough to stake out a target. And bogs tended not to move around much. That ruled out my main concerns. Anything smaller I could scare off.

If it were a person, I was in for it.

My eyes fixed on the oaks, and I crouched behind the tree stump. The scent of dew filled my nostrils, and I placed a hand on the grass, ready to run. Except with my only exit blocked, I didn’t have anywhere to go. The meadow was a fair size, and I was confident I could dodge a charging beast. People, though, couldn’t be avoided so easily. Strangers had a nasty habit of asking questions. A simple ‘Who are you?’ and my efforts of the last two years would be for nothing.

I closed my eyes and swallowed. Whoa, Eliza, slow down! Worrying about what might be outside the clearing wasn’t helping. I needed to stay focused. If I kept quiet, maybe the person would lose interest and move on. After all, what would anyone want from an empty patch of forest?

The wind threw my hair into my eyes, and I scowled. I should’ve tied it back before I left. Clawing it aside, I watched the space between the oaks. With my night vision returned, I could make out an extra shadow. It wasn’t moving, just blocking the gap. Frowning, I tapped out the seconds on the grass. By the time I got to four minutes, I clenched my fist. What was it waiting for? Either come and get me or get lost already!

Finally, the shadow moved back. I exhaled slowly. The Goddess must’ve been in a generous mood. Still, I didn’t move. A bit of excess caution never hurt. Adam would probably argue otherwise, but hey...

Five minutes passed. Then ten, then fifteen. Good, it wasn’t coming back. I relaxed, leaning my head against my arms. That was too close.

I looked to the moon again. At least I could tell Adam I only got in trouble once in a blue moon. I chuckled to myself, knowing he’d disown me for such a pathetic joke. Nonetheless, I was disappointed it was hanging in much the same place. It must only be an hour past midnight. The whole night lay ahead. Damn it, I hated courtship so much!

Chewing my lip, I kept an eye on the tree trunks. My narrow escape had me wondering. Was it safe to stay here? I’d never thought anyone would stumble across the meadow. If that hunter—for it had to be a hunter—had friends, it might only be a matter of time before one came roaming in search of game, and that would be the end of everything. It had never happened before, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t.

That settled it. I needed to find another hideout.

I straightened from the tree stump, brushing grass blades from my knees, then headed towards the oaks. I stopped a few feet away, listening. The shapeless person had moved with the grace of a drunken bull. Even with my self-taught tracking skills, I wouldn’t miss such clumsy steps. Thankfully, only the soughing leaves reached my ears, and I swallowed. Now was my chance to get moving.

Beyond the trunks, the forest depths loomed, and I slowly approached the trail that led back to Velwall. I stared for a long while. Home and a nice warm bed was a ten-minute walk west…but I couldn’t go back yet. I couldn’t risk running into someone. No, I had to stay here until I felt the stomach cramps again. Then my courtship would be over, and it’d be safe to return to civilization.

Brushing my hair over my shoulders—I really should’ve brought a hair-band—I stepped onto the track that wound deep into the Galgiza. I resisted the temptation to ogle the moon; it would only destroy my night vision again.

As I headed eastwards, I passed the bushes that formed the rear of my safe haven. A couple of shrubs were crushed, lying in a pile of broken needles and leaves.
I stopped dead. Even the chunkiest hunter couldn’t have done that. Not unless he’d slept on it for several weeks. My heart started racing again. Was I wrong? Was something else stalking the woods? My imagination filled with shapeless shadows and black beasts. Something whispered in my ear, and I shivered. Was that the wind, or something more?

A snarl echoed through the branches, and I jumped. My eyes darted towards the sound, and I realised I’d been stupid to leave the clearing.

The shiny black pupils of an enormous bear stared at me. Blue moonlight danced off its shaggy coat, and the shrubs it had trodden over. As I stood there, frozen, its nose twitched. It had caught my scent. And it looked awfully hungry.

An owl hooted in the distance, breaking the bear from its daze. It growled, opening jaws thick with saliva. Fear smacked me like a cold wave, and before I knew it, I was running back towards the village. The bear bellowed and took chase.

The forest passed in a crazy blur of leaves, twigs and stars as I pelted across the undergrowth. The bear cried out, its footfalls slowing, but I didn’t dare look back. My lungs were tight, starved for air as I followed the moonlit track. I was such an idiot! The meadow had been safest; the bear never would have reached me. Now I was destined to be a midnight snack. It was too late to make my way back. I had to find someplace else.

My foot caught in a root, and the world spun over itself. The branches and sky turned to dirt and twigs, and sharp pain pierced my left ankle. I groaned, falling onto my side. In the distance, I could hear the bear gaining ground again. Yet somehow the thud and thwack of broken branches was wrong. It had an irregular rhythm, as if…

I propped myself on my elbows and looked back. The bear was making its way towards me, but it was limping. It dragged its rear leg across the ground, catching on the forest debris. It must have broken it. No wonder it had hung around the clearing, waiting for an easy meal.

Ugh, dont just sit and daydream! Move!

As I scrambled to get away, my left foot flared. I grasped it, hissing. Damn, mustve sprained it. The bear growled, close enough that I caught its rotten breath. Reduced to crawling, I dragged myself across the trail. This wasn’t good—the bear would catch up in no time. My brow slick with sweat, I ran my hands over the ground, searching for a weapon. My arms shook so much, I could barely keep a grip on anything.

At last, I found a dead branch. Not a moment too soon, either, as the bear shot towards me. I whipped the branch around, letting it take the place of my neck, and the bear’s fangs latched around it. The beast roared, shaking its head to get rid of its new chew toy. Splinters flew everywhere, so I held my forearm in front of my face. I’d get nowhere blinded by shrapnel of my own making.

With the bear preoccupied, I struggled to my feet. But then my ankle gave way again, and I crashed to the ground. No, this couldn’t be happening! I was stuck. I had no-one to call for help—and if I did, I wouldn’t dare, given I was still under courtship—and I had nothing to defend myself.

I was going to die.

The bear bellowed; it had almost broken free. Trembling, I flailed for the nearest tree. The beast struck, and I cried out as it scored a tear across my face. I slammed back into the ground, gasping. I didn’t bother to get up again. There wasn’t any point. I couldn’t run, and I was so tired…

Something whistled through the air, and the bear screeched. I was facing the wrong way, so I couldn’t see what was happening, but I heard it thrashing, cracking branches and tearing shrubs. Another whistle, then another bellow, and finally a crash so heavy it quaked through the undergrowth. The noises stopped, and I was left in an uneasy quiet. I held my breath, clenching my eyes so tight I saw lights. Yet I never felt claws gouging out my insides, or teeth ripping through my neck.

After a moment convincing myself I hadn’t fallen asleep in the clearing and dreamed the whole thing, I pushed myself to a sitting position and glanced around. The bear lay slumped a couple of metres away, its breathing deep and regular. I shuffled closer, wary not to disturb it. From ravenous killing machine to sleeping beauty in under thirty seconds. Something odd was going on. I checked its claws, its snout, its coat. Nothing looked out of the ordinary.

Then I saw them.

Nestled between the beast’s massive bicep and chest lay a pair of red darts. My eyes widened. Those were tranquilliser shots. The terror from the chase flooded back, and I almost screamed.

It couldn’t be. No, no, no!

Footsteps crunched towards me, and I couldn’t breathe. I tried to stand, but my body had gone numb. I could only sit there and wait for the inevitable. My hands shook. No, I couldn’t be caught, not tonight! Any other night but tonight!

A gentle hand gripped my shoulder, and I heard the creak of leather as the person knelt beside me. I kept my gaze on the ground, but I knew it was futile. Please, no, not after Ive been so careful for the last two years…

“Are you alright?”

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