Dawn broke the night’s grip slowly, one thin ray of white after another permeating the small cabin. Their luminance drew Jarren gently from sleep, as though remorseful that the coming day must begin. The young man arose and dressed himself in a simple blue-dyed shirt, brown breeches, and a leather vest. On a thin hide belt he securely strapped a dirk, a blade that had once belonged to his father, so as to keep the man close while within the Pines. It all seemed so surreal to Jarren now that the time to prove himself in such an important rite of passage was upon him.
The young man stepped out into the early dawn and stood motionless for a while, feeling the wind’s chilly breath and watching the silver clouds which choked the sky. A crisp, clean smell caused by last evening’s snow was present, morning ice clinging to the drooping limbs of nearby trees. Jarren could sense everything around him, could smell the oncoming winter and the last remnants of autumn. He could hear the rustlings of birds and squirrels as they ferreted about, searching for food under the crusted snow, and he could see the clouds suddenly alight with the sun’s stunning radiance.
“Already awake I see, Jarren,” issued an old voice from behind the young man, withered with age yet undeniably strong and as frigid as the winter morning’s breath.
The young man turned swiftly, and when his eyes found the voice’s source he immediately regretted leaving his cabin.
It was an old man, his pale face a web of wrinkles and age spots. His hair was shoulder-length and thinning, whiter than the snow around them and blowing faintly as the breeze brushed passed. As with all the admittedly few elder inhabitants of the village, the man was thin with wiry limbs and fingers like bones. Only the eyes made a lasting impression apart from the sheer age of this man, for they were ice-blue and sharper than a dagger’s edge. Neither Jarren nor anyone else in the village liked to look at this one directly, for fear that those eyes could see past theirs and into their hearts and souls. With a sigh, young Jarren said resignedly and keeping his own eyes on the ground: “Life to you, Chief.”
“Your day has arrived, and I have come to collect you for the Pine Forest.”
Jarren gave an involuntary shudder when he heard the chief say “collect,” as though he was no more than a goat sold to another master; that new master being the Pines.
“If you will follow me, I will minimize conversation. I know all too well the excitement you must feel to reach this final path away from being just another damn child.”
Jarren almost couldn’t contain himself from cracking completely and breaking down into nervous laughter. Excitement? Was he really that blind? Surely his old age made him forget the option opposite from returning home with food after venturing into the Pines? And so Jarren made no comment despite a sudden desire to scream at the doddering old fool.
No, he thought, realizing his mistake, no doddering old fool; the chief of the village. Jarren decided then to simply let everything pass in silence and instead listen. Listen to everything that went on, and listen for anything in particular that could help his odds in the forest. He kept pace with the deceivingly swift stride of the old chief. Five minutes passed before they made their way to a small clearing marking the village’s edge, the immense trees of the Pine Forest looming overhead and casting ominous shadows over the clearings’ occupants. These were many, as the whole of the village seemed to be awake, awaiting Jarren’s departure.
The chief left Jarren’s side then, much to the young man’s relief, and stepped into the middle of the clearing to stand before the entirety of the crowd. The old man’s eyes swept this way and that, and everywhere they went those who stood there bowed their heads or averted their eyes. He seemed not to notice. “Today we ignite the spark of acceptance within this young man, for any who enter the woods willingly and return the following morn with game will be celebrated as a hunter!”
Where cheers would have erupted there was only silence. Some of the women and children chattered their teeth, trying to cover as much exposed skin as possible from the unrelenting iciness of the temperature. The village’s men, those who had survived their ordeal, looked on at the young man; some with sympathy for the coming trial and others with skepticism that this scrawny youth would succeed where their own sons had failed.
“This path to acceptance is not without risk, however, and if this boy is to survive the dangers of the Pines, then he has truly earned his place among our people as a man.” The chief ended the sentence with a dramatic flair of his wizened arms, looking perfectly ridiculous to any who were strangers and did not acknowledge the man as anything more than, as Jarren put it, a doddering old fool. “Come then, young Jarren, and carry with you the expectations of the village and its people; for should you fail, you will not only fail yourself, but the village and its people as well.”
Jarren did not know which emotion was stronger; anger at the chief for his off-hand comments regarding his life, or the fear of entering the Pines and possibly making those comments come to life. Both roiled within him like living creatures, throwing from him all concentration and proper thinking. It was because of this, because of how unfair life seemed at the moment and how no one seemed to be by his side that he simply strode directly across the clearing ignoring the comments of the chief and bent to pick up the longbow and quiver of five arrows before stepping into the forest itself.