The winding road ended, there, much as all such roads did-a straggling sort of death, fading and failing at the curves and the edges, potholed and weed-choked beneath the strangling fingers of mist where the water gathered after rainfall and the ivy crept from out the shadow-hung wooded fringe to curl and climb the skeletons of roadposts and a guardpost long cracked and rotting. No one walked the roads so far, this day and age-it was The Old Wood, and they said it like so, for there was the village wood and the river wood; but nothing which was quite The Old Wood, nor like it. The Old Wood was too near and too heavy, too dark and too watching. Even the young men who laughed at the boogie-tales of the Wood Keepers and the ghouls and the babbling beasts went somber, and would avert their eyes on those clear cold days when the black trees stabbed their jagged nodding heads through the valley mist. The Elders told of times long ago-sometimes in their rambling, when the muzzy and watered cataract-whitened eyes would look, perhaps, a hint more lucid-when back in the lost eras of their youth and The Old Wood simply The Wood; and a kinder place, lit and living, the road a vast highway of trade guarded by the soldiers of the One King. No one back in the village truly believed this, particularly when the keening howls and mournful cries drifted on hazy torn wings of the wind from the valley. But you respected the Elders of course, and you always sat politely and nodded and agreed that things must have been so much better and so much safer, back in the days of the One King when the world beyond the Village was a world, and not only legends of brighter places out past the haunted boughs of The Old Wood.

A strange rattling warble cried from out the trees, and a wind swirled the mist in strange whorls and almost runic patterns, cold as the mountains that birthed it-together they set a shudder through the cloak-wrapped figure that hunched at the edges where the mists grasped at it, tugging the short knife-cut hair neither silver-grey nor brown. It was short because she had not yet earned the right, as an adult, to grow it long-she had not earned the right, as an adult, to anything save the traveling garb she wore and the hunting knife at her waist, or the small creature that sat on its large haunches at her feet. It looked up at her with bright eyes, and long ears laid back in curiosity and nose quivering with the strange and ancient scent of The Old Wood. It made a small and querying trill in its throat, and then subsided back to all fours, tails twitching.

The girl looked down at the animal, and crouched beside it, holding a hand out and scratching behind one of the long rabbit-like ears. It was a strange beast-large at the haunches but slim of the upper body, long-eared and of an odd, faintly oval elongate face, and two small foxtails trailing behind: something of weasel, fox, and rabbit, and something else all at once. The soft fur was a sort of light tan and orange, warm as grass on a summer's day, and marked with flame red, so that paws, belly, ear- and tail-tips, and the patterns smudged across the back looked painted with sunset. He was of the Nijuu, the beast-race from the days when even The Old Wood would have been merely seeding, and she was at awe with honor that such was the creature named as her Spirit Guard. It would have been a mistake, except that the Spirit Guard did not make mistakes. "Honou?" and she called him that because it was the name that came to her in her last Child Dream, and the name that, to her, he would thus always have.

Honou's response was to trill again, rubbing his head into her palm, run with the leather strap of her half-glove. He didn't seem so troubled, so perhaps she should not be. But she shuddered again all the same and withdrew her hand, standing again to stare down to the last straggling hints of road ahead, disappearing into the ominous dark trees that spun out above with their crowns lost in the mist. No one in the Village, at least as she had heard, had ever dared to brave The Old Wood for their Journey from child to adult. But in her last Child Dream this was what she had seen-the looming dark arms above, and the swirling mists before her. And it had called her so . . . She shook her head, drawing the cloak tight about herself. The Elders had warned her away, had waved their gnarled hands away to the west or east or south. Away to the higher peaks or the deep river or the sprawling labyrinthine caverns, but she knew, somehow, that the way lie here amongst the clinging shadows and the strange otherworldly crying. The last Child Dream had shown her as much, and according to the Ways of the Village, it was where she must go, Elders be damned, though no disrespect, of course.

Another faint and querulous trill from her feet, but she did not look down to her Guard this time. She could not take her eyes from the staring, glowering trees-she would not back down. She could not, the Ways spoke it so-she had given up her child name and her child home and family, and all things that were of the child, and now she could not turn back. To the Village, and to herself, she did not exist until her Journey gave her name and identity as an adult. She could not change her journey. She could not change the winding, fading ancient road. She could not change the hungry stares of The Old Wood, or the yammering of whatever
lurked within. She did not want to.

Falling slowly to her knees, she drew something from within the cloak-a small bundle, wrapped reverently in the green cloth of rebirth, and set it to the damp but dusty ground, color barely visible through the mist. "Mothers of the West and North," and it was a whisper, spoken in the old tongues with the halting, awkward manner of a recent student, "Take me in death." She was proud, as she performed the last rites-her hands almost did not shake. "Fathers of the East and South. Give me life . . ." Her trembling hands grasped the thin cord, and she stood swiftly, jerking it so that the bundle tumbled open, and the ashes therein-it had been her Dreambook, so lovingly and meticulously kept-scattered in the cold, cold wind, whipped about her and scattered lost into the mist.

She stayed so for a moment, standing; and she lowered her head, pulling the dusky green hood forward to hang over her, shadowing her face. It was in silence that she entered The Old Wood, steps measured so that maybe they would not hesitate so much, and Honou behind in her path. The winding road ended, there, much as all such roads did-but only the first steps were taken, and the Journey just begun.