Bleakwood: Part 2
I turned my back on the river and began prowling around the small clearing. It didn’t take me long to find the trail.
I motioned to Danvir and he strolled over.
“You have the trail?” He asked.
I nodded. “About two weeks old, give or take.” I pointed back into the clearing near where we’d piled the backpacks. “Looks like they camped here on their first night. They’ve covered their signs fairly well, but I can see the remains of a small camp fire.”
“What’s next then?”
“I’m going to start moving ahead and following the trail. Do you know how to read trail sign?”
Danvir shook his head.
“Call Rain over. I’ve never met a tribesman who couldn’t read at least some trail.”
Danvir made a low whistling sound to get his attention and gestured for him to join us.
“What?” The young tribesman grunted.
“Can you read trail sign?” I asked.
“Some.” He replied shortly.
“Good enough. I’ll be ranging ahead, not too far, but in forest this dense one hundred feet might as well be one hundred miles for all you can see. I’ll leave markings for you to follow so I don’t have to keep coming back.” I looked at Danvir. “You’ll all have to keep your eyes open for threats, I’ll try to warn you if I see anything, but I might not be fast enough.”
“You sure you can read his sign?” Danvir asked Rain.
“I said I could read some, didn’t I?” The youth replied, annoyed. “I’ll follow where he’s gone. No trouble.”
Glancing over Danvir’s shoulder I spotted a lesson in the making.
“Watch this, both of you.” I advised as I walked back to the main group.
Kasper, one of the Clan warriors, was leaning against a mossy tree. I pulled my unstrung bow from its case on my back and kicked the stocky warrior’s feet out from under him. I pushed a low branch that had been just above Kasper’s right shoulder aside with my bow as he fell cursing to the ground. The warrior tried to surge back to his feet, but I placed a foot on his shoulder and pushed him back down and held him there.
“Listen.” I told the group. “Everything in the forest is trying to kill something. Just because it looks safe, doesn’t mean it is.”
I swept out my hand, grabbed the errant branch, and pulled it away from the tree. It writhed in my hand, but I had a good grip on it, right behind its head.
“This, as far as I know, is called a Branch snake, so called because it looks like a branch. Its bite would have you dead in under half an hour, and most of that time would be spent in agony.”
I carefully tossed the snake aside, deeper into the brush, and Kasper relaxed beneath my foot.
“That snake was about a minute or two from seeing you dead.” I told the warrior. “Best thing you can all do is assume that everything from a stone, to a tree, to the very plants all around, all want to see you dead. When we camp, we’ll sweep the area first to make sure it’s clear, I’ll show you what to look for. In the morning, tip your boots out before you put them on. Somethings here like to crawl into places like that and hide. There’s more but you’ll have to learn it as we go.”
The group, pale faced, except for Rain, nodded and glanced all around them. Having them fearful was definitely preferable to having them overconfident. I crossed the clearing to where Lord Putcha standing alone, looking calm and collected.
“Are those snakes common?” He asked quietly.
“As common as anything else around here.” I replied. “I warned you that this was going to be dangerous.”
“Were you exaggerating the dangers just now, or is every animal and plant in this place looking to kill us?”
I smiled. “Maybe not quite everything, but like that snake, there are more hidden dangers than I can describe in the time we have.”
“Perhaps the impromptu lesson will be taken then.”
“We can only hope.” I replied, shortly. “Speaking of dangers, I’m going to move ahead, start following the trail. We’ll camp here tonight. If they start now you should have a camp set up well before it gets dark.”
“Dark?” Lord Putcha snorted. “It’s barely past midday. We have hours yet.”
I shook my head. “It gets dark much earlier this deep in the forest. All the trees block the light. There are only a few more hours of usable light and you don’t want to be setting up camp in the dark. Best thing is for us to have an early dinner and get as much sleep as possible. There won’t be much in the coming days.”
“We mustn’t delay!” Lord Putcha protested. “Sohan could be out there needing our help.”
“Well we won’t be able to help him if we’re dead. If everyone does as I say, then at least some of us will find out what became of him.”
“Lord Putcha, some of us will die. That’s a fact. I’m going to be ranging ahead marking the trail, and some of you will step on something you shouldn’t have, or find another Branch snake, or something. Rain is young, but he’s got a good eye for this. Keep him near and keep him happy.”
“I’ll get Danvir to get the camp started.” Lord Putcha acceded.
I roused myself early the next morning. I hadn’t slept much more than a few hours, rising every now and then to make sure who ever was on guard was still alive. It was still dark, and would be for a while yet, enough time to reheat the supper leftovers and make a rough breakfast. Rain was already kneeling over the ashes of the campfire, sweeping them out of the small pit and disposing of them in a separate hole that we’d cover over later. He had a small bundle of wood shavings ready to go. Smart kid. He glanced up as I walked over.
“I thought it’d be quieter, like the plains.” He murmured, as he scooped out the last of the ashes and placed the wood shavings in the pit, along with some small dried twigs.
“It’s never quiet in a forest like this.” I replied, softly.
I watched as Rain tried to light his tinder, but he couldn’t get it to catch. Not his fault, dry was a relative term in the Bleakwood.
“Gods damn it!” He muttered in frustration.
“Hold on.” I told him, as I touched a finger to the tinder. I concentrated, and a small bit of flame flared from the finger touching the tinder. The little flame ignited the small pile of twigs with a soft puff of heat.
Rain leaned away from me in surprise for a moment before shaking himself. He began to slowly add slightly larger twigs to the growing fire and was quiet for a few minutes as he busied himself with his task.
“Putcha’s runabout didn’t mention that we’d have a Wizard with us.” Rain said carefully.
“I’m not a Wizard.” I said, softly.
“But you can make fire. I saw you.”
I shrugged. “That doesn’t make me a Wizard.”
I could see Rain work his way through the problem and knew what he was about to ask before he did.
“No.” I said with distaste, stopped him. “I’m not one of… those… either.”
I saw him take a breath and relax a little. I pointed to the strip of leather that circled my head and lifted it a little away from my brow, just enough for him to see the small, blue gem beneath. Rain stared in surprise.
“Mystic.” He gasped in surprise.
“It’s not as impressive as you’d think.”
“My father has a knife he says was made by a Mystic. I’ve never seen him sharpen it, but it’s always wicked sharp. He says he bought it when he was younger, and it cost him more gold than he’s seen since.”
“We all have different skills.” I told the young tribesman. “I never was much good with working weapon steel. This is how I make my living.”
The fire was burning well now, and I placed the small pot over the flames.
“Go wake the others. We’ll eat and then I’ll head off while they break camp. Just follow my trail and you’ll do fine.”
Breakfast finished, and my gear stowed, I left the clearing, leaving the others to break camp. Rain would follow my trail and hopefully keep them out of too much trouble. Initially, the trail left by Lord Putcha’s son was easy to follow. They hadn’t bothered being careful and just blundered through the bush in a more or less straight line. I knew that wouldn’t have lasted for very long. The Bleakwood had a way of throwing more and more obstacles in your way if you tried to fight it. Instead you had to work your way around, to find the path of least resistance. It made for long days, where despite all your efforts, you never seemed to get very far. Sure enough, after about an hour, the trail started to meander more and more, forcing me to slow down. I made my trail markings a little more obvious than I normally would, but I couldn’t take the chance that the rest of the group would wander off the trail. I didn’t want to become known as the guide who got the Lord of the Putcha Clan killed.
Around mid-morning I stopped for something to eat. The forest around me felt tense, something I’d noticed already, and that made me feel a little uneasy. A place like this had a certain feel to it, a rhythm, and if you could feel that rhythm, that pulse, you had the means to know something was wrong, before it bit you on the ass. I reached out, without turning, and flicked away the young branch snake that had been slowly sliding down the trunk of the tree unseen behind me and Listened.
A few minutes later, I stood up and dusted myself off. Something had disturbed the forest, but I didn’t think there was any need to worry, yet. There may have been a distant fire, or maybe some hunters had passed through in the last few days. The Elves too were a possibility. They had been acting more aggressive than usual of late. I’d warn Lord Putcha this evening of course, not that he’d listen, but nonetheless, I’d tell him.
I pushed on and a few minutes later found the first problem of the day. A small river cut across the path, it wasn’t very wide, but it looked to be about waist deep. I checked the bank, up and down river, and even though I did find signs that the young Putcha’s group had done the same as I, they hadn’t gone very far. The ground became very waterlogged and difficult, meaning you either crossed the river or you turned back. There hadn’t been any sign of them turning back, so we’d have to cross. I took a length of rope from my pack and tied it to a sturdy tree. I dropped off the bank and waded carefully across. The riverbed was slippery and muddy, but I made it across safely. I climbed up the bank on the other side, secured the end of the rope to another tree. I checked the undergrowth and then pulled my boots off to dry my feet as best I could. That done, I pulled the boots back on and set about searching for the trail.
I hadn’t gone far, a few hundred feet at most, when right in the middle of the trail I found a single footprint. I swore and made a silent plea to Equola, God of the herd and of the hunt, as I turned around and began striding back down the trail towards the river. I was almost to the river, when I heard someone crashing through the brush towards me. I positioned myself in the centre of the trail, bow ready and arrow nocked. A few minutes later, Rain, soaking wet from his dip in the river appeared, charging along the trail, sword drawn. He slid to a halt before me and gestured back down the trail.
“Elves!” He gasped. “I led everyone to the river crossing and Lord Putcha told me to find you.”
I relaxed the bow, slid the arrow back into the quiver and slapped Rain on the shoulder.
“Come on.” I told him. “Put away the sword and string your bow, they’re going to need us to cover them while they cross the river.”
I led the young tribesman back to the river at a steady trot and arrived back at the riverbank.
I could see Lord Putcha and the rest of the group on the opposite bank, fighting a small group of elves. I also spotted the lone elf creeping up along the river, trying to flank the group. I nudged Rain and nodded towards the lone elf.
“I hope you’re good with that bow, as soon as I kill that elf, shout to Lord Putcha to start crossing. We’ll have to cover anyone crossing the river. Elves are good with bows, generally, but theirs don’t have much range. If you see an elf, kill it. Understand?”
Rain nodded as he smoothly sheathed his sword. He had his bow in hand moments later and an arrow ready.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Ready.” He replied.
I nocked an arrow, calmed my mind, slowly drew the arrow back, feeling the bow flex, and released.
The elf collapsed into the river, as my arrow took him deep in his side. It was as clean a shot as I could manage. The water drowned his scream of pain and the river quickly carried him away.
Rain whistled loudly beside me and Kamil, one of the clan house warriors spotted us. I watched him shouting to Lord Putcha and pointing towards us. The Clan Lord glanced across the river towards us and nodded. I drew another arrow and waited.
Maria was the first to cross. She ran towards the river bank, sheathing her sword as she did, and jumped for the rope, grabbing it a few metres out from the bank. Her feet slid out from under her and she would have been carried off by the current except for the rope. She hauled herself upright and made it across to scramble up the bank, gulping for air. She was followed by Kasper, who made it across without mishap. I directed them to the trail behind us, telling them to stay alert for more elves. The elves were catching on and were pushing harder against the remaining members of our party. I watched as Danvir held their defence together, sliding aside from spear thrusts and returning his own attacks. Lord Putcha stood beside him, skilful in his own right. I watched as he parried a thrust that would have gotten past Red’s guard, leaving himself exposed for a moment, but Danvir was there when needed, as if he’d known that his Lord would be vulnerable right at that moment. Red stepped back from the attack and ran for the river. Lord Putcha, Danvir and Kamil held their ground but they couldn’t stop several elves from filtering through the trees and getting around them. I chose my targets and did what I could, and Rain did likewise. Red made it across the river in one piece, but a few of the elves were now using bows. Several of their arrows had come close to hitting Red during her crossing. She scrambled up the bank and I let her rest for a moment before telling her to join Maria and Kasper. The last thing we wanted was to be ambushed from behind.
Lord Putcha was the next to cross. He seemed to argue a moment with Danvir before running for the river bank, leaving his personal guardsman and Kamil hold back the remaining elves. Elven arrows were already flying before he slid down the bank. He staggered as an arrow seemed to clip his left arm but managed to stay upright and make his way across the river, several more arrows falling into the water around him. He clambered up the bank and rested behind us while Rain and I loosed more arrows at what elves we could see.
Danvir and Kamil were holding their own, but it was only a matter of time. They fought for a few more minutes, starting a slow retreat to the river and then, without warning, both turned and ran for the river at the same time.
Rain and I did our best, but as they struggled across the river, an arrow found Kamil’s back. Danvir managed to grab him and drag him the rest of the way across. I shouldered my bow as the elves swarmed the opposite bank and glared at us, shouting in their own language. Rain raised his bow again, but I pulled his arm down.
“Save your arrows. They’re not trying to cross. Keep an eye on them, I need to see to Kamil.”
Rain nodded, and I left him to it. I reached down and grabbed Danvir’s hand, as he scrambled and slipped up the bank, hauling Kamil with him, and pulled him over the edge. Kamil was pale and shivering as we lay him on his side. I cut his tunic off him and examined the wound.
“Will he be alright?” Lord Putcha asked behind me.
I leant back and sighed as the warrior stopped shivering and groaned.
“No.” I answered. “He’s already dead”
“Poison?” Lord Putcha asked.
“Some sort of toxin, yes.” I replied. “Whatever it is, it’s fast.”
I glanced at the Clan Lord’s left arm and spotted the rip in his tunic.
“Show me your arm.” I ordered him.
“It’s fine.” He protested. “It’s just a scratch.”
I pointed at Kamil to drive home the seriousness of it. “Your arm. Show me.”
Lord Putcha grimaced and knelt in front of me. I ripped open his sleeve and looked at the wound. It was just a shallow cut, little more than the scratch that Lord Putcha claimed it to be, but to be certain I placed my hand over it and listened.
After a moment I removed my hand.
“There’s a small amount of the toxin inside you.” I told him. “I’ve done what I can. Nothing might come of it, or it might kill you eventually. More than that I can’t say. For now, you’re fine, but I’ll keep an eye on it, morning and night.”
Lord putcha’s eyes narrowed a little as he looked at me.
“We’re not turning back.”
I cast my eyes towards the sky and prayed for patience before replying.
“We’re not a full day into this trek, we’ve been ambushed by a band of elves, one of the party has already died, and you’ve been poisoned.” I pointed out. “The only reason Rain got to me so quickly is because I was already on my way back to you. I found evidence of more elves on this side of the river.”
Lord Putcha looked at me sharply. “Evidence?”
“A single footprint further down the trail.”
“A single footprint is hardly evidence of anything more than a single individual.” The Clan Lord protested. “Besides, we’ve not seen any elven territorial markings. You’d have said if you’d seen them.”
“No, I haven’t seen any.” I confirmed. “But I also told Danvir before we started that something has the elves riled up. Seeing a group as large as we did so far from their territory suggests that they’re moving further afield.”
“Speculation.” Lord Putcha grunted. “We’ll keep following the trail.”
I shook my head. “I thought you might say something like that. There’s a clearing up ahead where we can rest for a bit. We’ll have some food and then move on again.”
I got back on the trail as soon as I saw the everyone settled in the small clearing. Danvir was staying close to Lord Putcha, doing a passable impersonation of a mother hen. Before leaving, I took Rain aside and quietly told him to keep an eye on the Clan Lord.
The trail meandered back and forth, following the path of least resistance where possible, as I expected. About a half hour later, I found two bodies. The denizens of the Bleakwood had already stripped them almost down to the bone. Their weapons were missing, as well as what armour they might have possessed, but there were a few scraps of clothing strewn around the place. I found more Elven footprints, several days old. It was hard to tell from the remains, but I got enough of a picture of what happened. Maybe Lord Putcha would be able to tell who they were, or Danvir, but I doubted it. I pushed on and moments later almost died.
I was pushing through some undergrowth when instinct made me suddenly stop. I scanned the ground in front of me and found a tripwire. I breathed softly and crouched down to examine it. I found the trap just in front of me. Artfully camouflaged, a thick sapling had been bent back and several wooden spikes had been secured to it, their tips darkened with what I presumed was poison. Had I stepped on the tripwire, the sapling would have sprung back around to its normal position, and I’d have had several of those spikes in me. I disarmed the trap and moved on. This was yet another sign that the Elves were moving beyond their traditional borders. I was starting to wish I knew why.
As twilight approached, the rest of the party found me in another small clearing. I’d dug a firepit that would do for cooking and be easily covered after.
“You saw the bodies?” I asked as soon as Lord Putcha had made himself comfortable.
“I did. Danvir thinks it was Dhana and Kedar. Those two were never far apart. It’s unfortunate, but at least we know we’re on the right track.”
“And did you see the Elven footprints around them?”
“Rain pointed them out.” The Clan Lord said, offhandedly. “Days old he said. Nothing to worry about.”
“It’s more proof that they’re moving beyond their territories, as is the trap I disarmed.”
Lord Putcha waved away my concern. “They’re not here now, so it matters little. We’ll push on.”
“I understand that you want to find your son, but at what cost? We’ve already lost a man, and you’ve been poisoned. Are you willing to die in this search and take us all with you?”
The Clan Lord surged to his feet, furious. “I thought you were made of sterner stuff!” He spat. “At the first sign of trouble though, you want to cut and run.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not going anywhere Lord, I’m asking you how much you want to risk. I warned you at the start that this was a fool’s errand, but I let the thoughts of that damned city guide my decision, so that makes me as big a fool as you. More so maybe. I’m just letting you know, right now, that the chances of us getting back out are getting worse and worse, the longer we stay.”
Lord Putcha coughed and spat to one side. “We’ll push on, and that’s the end of it.”
I shrugged. “Have it your own way, but I’d start making peace with the Gods before too much longer.”
I relieved a weary Danvir in the small hours of the night while everyone else slept as best they could.
Danvir glanced at his sleeping Lord as I walked over to where he was standing.
“You probably shouldn’t argue with him.” The Clansman advised. “He’s as fine a man as I’ve ever known, but he does have his blind spots, and a very long memory.”
I shook my head. “He’s a damned fool and he’s going to get us killed. I’m worse for agreeing to this foolhardy mission. I told you when you first asked me to come that the son was already dead. I’ve seen nothing so far that has changed my mind.”
Danvir sighed. “You’re probably right.”
I stared at the him, surprised that he’d disagree with his Lord.
“About Sohan I mean, but Ravi won’t stop until he knows for certain.” He added. “But you’re wrong about dying in here though.”
Danvir smiled and gripped my shoulder. “I’ve every confidence that you’ll get us out of here.”
“I’m not that certain.” I replied, honestly. “Get some sleep, there’s a few hours left yet.”
Danvir nodded and walked back towards the rest of the party while I knelt in the darkness, relaxed, closed my eyes, and listened.
I woke everyone just as the sun was about to rise. The forest felt so very tense now, much more than it had yesterday. It was as though a bow string was being drawn back, not quite ready to release yet, but close.
Lord Putcha coughed as he woke and spat a gob of phlegm to the side. I pressed him down as he started to rise and placed my hand on his chest for a moment.
“It’s spreading.” I told him, softly.
“Will it kill me?” He asked, bluntly.
“Most likely not, but it will get worse before it gets better.”
“Good then.” The Clan lord said briskly, as he brushed my hand aside. “Get your breakfast and find me that trail.”
I rose to my feet and stalked back to my bundle. Danvir shook his head in silent rebuke as I passed him, and I shrugged in silent reply.
I waited until there was just enough light to see by and I stalked off, following the trail that was growing fresher with each hour. A few minutes down the trail, I passed another body, only several days old. Pieces of armour were scattered around, enough that I could see that this had been another clan warrior. I found part of a broken Elven arrow embedded in the body. It seemed that the son’s party had had worse luck than us.
I pushed on through the undergrowth, the path was much easier to follow. It seemed that the party had fled from the elves, not bothering to hide their trail. I followed their mad dash for another few hundred feet, finding several more broken Elven arrows, and several man-made ones. I arrived at another river, this one shallower than the previous. I could clearly see the boot prints of my quarry on both banks. I crossed the river in short order and climbed the opposite bank. I stopped at the top and marked the trap that had been dug into the path. Another nasty, poisoned thing. Several small holes, enough to trap a foot in, with tough wooden skewers pushed into the sides. If they didn’t pierce your skin when your foot dropped into the hole, they’d get you if you tried to remove it. That they were poisoned was a foregone conclusion.
I’d just finished marking the trap when I heard a footstep behind me. I dived aside, and an arrow slammed into the ground between me and my bow. I pulled my heavy knife as I spun around to face my attacker and found myself staring at a lone elf.