The world was so much vaster than Asherah would have ever believed. She and her companion Tekru passed through the fallow lands below the frost, where the earth had been torn by ancient glaciers in their passing and left raw and dark beneath an iron sky. From there they entered rocky lands, with wide barren plains shadowed by jagged mountains. Under a crescent moon they left behind the northlands she had known, and rode into a land where the sun rose each day into a blazing sky.
She was glad when mists hid the sun, for the light was harsh to her, and she covered her face with her cowl when they traveled by day. But as the land grew rougher, and the cliffs rose on each side, there was more shade from the sun, and at last they descended into a long, steep valley between towering razor mountains, and reached a land of forest so deep it seemed to stretch forever in every direction, and she wondered how they would find their way.
The trees were huge and towered high over the path, the branches heavy and thick with mist. The carpet of fallen needles beneath the hooves of their horses was so thick they made no sound when they trod upon it. The land was silent and ageless, and she wondered if any human eyes had ever seen these deeps.
On the eighth day they climbed a long ridge beside the sighing of a great waterfall, tasting the mist in the air, and then they came to a place where the earth was churned and marked by the print of a great hoof. Asherah was amazed, for she had never seen a track so immense. It was the split hoof of a deer, but as far across as a shield, and the beast it suggested must stand as high as a great tree. Tekru saw it and shook his head, made a sign to ward off evil.
“We can dare no more. Here the path turns east, to take us out of this accursed land.” He pointed to where the mountains were cleft, and a pass was visible in the fog. “That way.”
“You said the red sands we seek are to the south,” she said. “Is there no way through?”
“The way south is swifter,” he said. “But only a madman would take it. From here the forest becomes something not meant as the domain of men. If you go south into those woods, you will not come out again.”
“I am already too far behind my quarry,” she said. In her mind she saw the face of Gathas the sorcerer, the one who stole the body of the emperor from its tomb and set her on this path. “I cannot delay.”
“Perhaps one such as you might pass through the forest, but do not risk it.” He gestured. “This way will take us back to the lands of men, and from there we may take a road to the south.”
“But it is the long way,” she said.
“As the path is marked, yes. But Vengru walks here, the ruler of the forest, the one who may be a god.” Tekru looked on the great hoofprint and shuddered. “He does not permit any to cross his land unmarked.”