We come to a crossroads. While there are no formal paths here, animals have blazed trails, and these we follow. Here, at this place, hordes of creatures must have crossed ways in order to create something this visible.
It is between the treeline and the river we see ahead. Clearly large animals paused here to choose between water and shade, coming from both east and west to this point of choice. As many chose water, clearly, as those choosing shade. There is no sight of animals now, but the evidence overwhelms us.
It gets worse when Hanna says, “What if we only think animals did this?”
“What else can it be?” I burst out, sending her a look.
She shrugs. “People, Lyra, how else?”
I do not want to think about that. Until now I have been quite happy to believe that Arc is uninhabited … except for the ethereal Sassen. Think about it I must, though. “Fine, maybe. This is your talent, Hanna; how long since someone or something walked here?”
Hanna slides off Pretty and bends to the trail. Moving in both directions, she studies the trampled earth, finally squatting to stare fixedly.
“Well?” I demand.
She is thoughtful. “No footprints that suggest people, but no prints to suggest animals either. It’s odd, does not make sense.”
I clamber from Leaf’s back and join her. “Can you at least tell when?”
Hanna looks up at me. “A thousand years … and this morning.”
Breath deserts me for a moment. “What do you mean?”
“This place is both ancient and new, Lyra, and well-travelled, but who or what walks here? Your guess is as good as mine.”
I glance over my shoulder at the trees. Nothing there. No one comes along the exposed paths either. The river’s edge is unattended. We are alone, as we believed. I close my eyes.
Yes, there it is. My inner senses tell me we are, in fact, surrounded.