By the fifth day, no one was singing any more. There had been little enough spirit for it from the start, but a song to march to was customary, and custom overcame inclination – for a while. From the first day the mountains stole our words and threw them back at us with a mocking jeer threaded through the familiar tune. Then there was the damp, which had seeped under every seam and cuff by the second morning, and, from the third day, the forest itself.
Mere wild woods we could have met with on equal terms, coming only as strangers, but these were woods that had been farmland in our grandfathers’ day, and we crept back as intruders, beaten before we began. A dozen times a day that ancient defeat laughed at us, from a fragment of stonework, from a stand of apple trees, from the very path we trod, that had once been a paved road. Even the glade where we rested on that fifth day was a part of the leering threat of the reclaimed wild, for we stopped at a crumbling well, and there were even weathered benches, preserved well beyond the expectation of their builders by freak chance and by paint that was now a faded memory.
Saul began it.
“They cannot have got so far.”
We shifted uneasily, ashamed to find ourselves relieved that the words had at last been spoken. Over the next half hour, hesitantly, reluctantly, without once stating the specifics of the case, the decision was made. It had been a bold effort. It was a chance we had been right to seize. But the hope had died stillborn, and we had pursued its ghost as far as anyone might reasonably expect.
We were sullenly resettling our packs, and setting our faces to the road home, when Aaron, grasping at anything to break the silence, asked me what I had in my hand.
I stared down at it stupidly. I hadn’t even been aware of it, had picked it up unconsciously as I settled onto the bench and fidgeted with it throughout our conference. Now I spread my hands to show them. It was a child’s toy, the paint still fresh.
As one we turned to the forsaken path, and, as we pushed on into the forest, faintly, wonderingly, we began to sing.
I found this in my maybe file, and it took me a while to remember why I wrote it. It was for this VisDare prompt, but the story came too slowly and ran too long, and that must have been why I forgot it for a while.