Bleakwood: Part 3
I hadn’t seen many Elves before yesterday, so I didn’t have much to compare this Elf to. I couldn’t say if she was young or old, nor if she was tall, or short, for her race. Her skin was a dark brown, almost like tree bark and her large eyes were a vibrant green. Her clothing was all earthy colours, with a little green mixed in, perfect for the forest, and in her hand, she held a small bow, with an arrow already nocked. I dodged behind the nearest tree as she drew the bow and released, rounding the other side of the bole and sprinting towards her. The Elf looked at me in alarm as she saw me coming and fumbled her next arrow and dropped it. Young then, or at least, inexperienced.
I slammed my shoulder into her chest and threw her off her feet, keeping a hold of her as we hit the ground and rolled. She fought hard, kicking and biting as I lay atop her, keeping her hands secure. I didn’t want to kill her, she was only defending her territory, I presumed, so I slammed my forehead into her nose, stunning her long enough for me to roll off her and deliver a solid punch to the jaw. I tied her hands and feet together and propped her up against a tree, after ensuring that it was safe. She stared silently at me, her eyes blazing as I retrieved my bow and slung it over my shoulder.
I walked back to her and knelt in front of her. I pulled a mostly clean rag from a pocket and pointed to her bloody nose.
“I mean no harm to you.” I said carefully.
She snarled as I leant close to wipe her face and I thought better of it. If she wanted to bleed, then I was happy to let her.
“Suit yourself.” I shrugged, tucking the rag back into my pocket.
“Galar!” She spat, her eyes burning with hatred.
I shook my head. “I don’t speak your tongue, but I’m guessing that wasn’t very nice.”
She hissed and fought against her bindings, almost rubbing her skin raw.
“Gods damn it!” I muttered, as I pushed her back against the tree. “I’m not going to kill you. Do you understand me?”
The Elf hissed again. I didn’t want to kill her, and I couldn’t let her go. If I left her bound as she was, the creatures of the forest would kill her. I didn’t think that Lord Putcha would be kind to her. This was a fine fix to be in.
“I only want to know how to get to Em-Nuhdet.” I muttered as I stared back at the furious Elf.
She started as she heard the name and started struggling again.
“You know that name?” I grunted as I held her down. “Tell me!”
I almost lost a chunk of my forearm, her teeth snapping closed a bare inch from my skin, as I continued to hold her down. She suddenly relaxed and stopped trying to break free. I breathed a sigh of relief, until she started screaming. Not a scream of panic or fear, but a furious, rolling scream, that seemed to echo from every tree around me. I grabbed the mostly clean rag and stuffed it in her mouth, almost losing a finger as I did.
“Gods damn it!” I swore.
There wasn’t much choice now. Her screams would have been heard for miles around, even over the normal din of the forest. Any nearby elves would be coming this way. As much as I hated to do it, I picked her up and put her over my shoulder, keeping her teeth well away from me.
“You’ve only yourself to blame for this.” I told her as I marched back towards the rest of my party. “I would have been happy to see you free once we’d passed by.”
I left the trail and slipped around the undergrowth, as best I could, until I found a likely spot. It was sheltered and far enough off the trail that she wouldn’t be found too quickly. I lowered her to the ground, and after making sure that the bush wasn’t already home to something, rolled her into it.
“I’m sorry to do this to you, I truly am.” I told her as I made to leave. “but I’m sure you’ll work yourself free eventually.”
If glares could kill, she’d have killed me several times by now. I could almost feel the hate rolling off her like waves. Well no one has ever accused the Elves of being friendly.
I made returned to the trail and made my way back towards the party until I ran into Rain. I told him to keep his eyes and ears open and continued on to Lord Putcha.
“What is it?” He demanded.
“I was almost ambushed by an Elf. I took care of it, but more are almost certainly coming.”
I shrugged. “As sure as I can be. You must have heard her screaming a while back.”
“That was an Elf?” Danvir asked, surprised. “I thought it was some sort of animal.”
“I think it was a warning, or a call for aid.” I continued. “Whichever it was, you can be sure that every Elf nearby heard it.”
“Maybe we should consider …” Danvir started.
“Consider what?” Lord Putcha demanded. “We will push through, and if the Elves come, we’ll slaughter them.”
“Then we should move now. We shouldn’t be standing around like this.” I interrupted, walking away. “I’ll lead, Rain will watch the rear.”
I trotted back to the young tribesman who was hunkered down beside the trail, chewing on a piece of dried meat.
“Trouble?” he asked.
“Elves. I want you to watch the rear. You see anything, you shout. There’s another river crossing coming up, it’s shallow so it shouldn’t slow us down much, but watch for it. Tell everyone to get moving.”
Rain stood up and nodded. “Will do.”
I grabbed a small scrap of my own stash of dried meat and started chewing on it while wondering if we’d all be alive to have dinner in a few hours.
I led the party along the trail, Red stayed right behind me, with Maria behind her. Following them were Kasper, Danvir and Lord Putcha, with Rain behind them. We didn’t run, but it was a fast march, with hands hovering near weapons. I held my bow, ready to nock an arrow at a moment’s notice. We crossed the river and as I gained the opposite bank, I warned Red about the traps I’d found, telling her to pass the warning back. I led the party around the traps and we kept going. The day was wearing on and midday came and went. Sometime, shortly after midday, I heard Rain shout a warning and I spun around, bringing my bow up, arrow nocked and ready to draw. I felt the breath of a passing arrow, and my cheek stung. I searched and found the Elf, standing close to a tree just off the trail, almost invisible. I drew in a smooth movement and released the arrow, as the Elf released one of his own. My arrow found the Elf’s throat, even though I’d been aiming for his chest. His arrow found Maria. She looked down at the arrow sticking out of her chest for a moment, then dropped bonelessly to the ground. Red knelt down beside her, but I already knew she was dead.
“Gods damned Elves!” Red swore. “Find me one to kill Kenan.”
“Best we don’t find any.” I replied, carefully. “Wait here and keep your eyes open.”
I pushed through the undergrowth and made my way over to the dead Elf. He was dressed similarly to the female Elf I’d fought earlier, all earthy colours, presumably to make it easier to hide.
“So this is an Elf.” Lord Putcha observed from behind me. “They’re smaller than I thought they’d be.”
Danvir crouched beside the body of the Elf and fingered the clothing before examining the Elf’s bow.
“It’s very light.” The warrior observed of the bow.
“They don’t have much range.” I replied. “In a forest like this there’s not too many straight lines. Probably strong enough for hunting smaller animals.”
“And us.” Danvir added.
“And us.” I acknowledged. “What happened at the back?”
“An elf with a spear stepped out of a bush, almost ran Kasper through but Rain got him. Put an arrow through the Elf’s heart.”
“They’re closing in on us.” I observed.
Danvir nodded. “Seems like it.”
“Then we need to get moving again.” Lord Putcha interrupted. “Grab what we can carry from the girl’s gear and let’s go.”
With me leading, we moved as quickly as we could. At this point, a blind man could have followed the trail, but I didn’t want to rush headlong into more Elvish traps. As the day waned and darkness closed in around us, even Lord Putcha was forced to admit that we needed to stop and rest. We hadn’t seen any sign of Elves in some time, but they were out there somewhere. We made a cold camp that night and everyone took a turn on sentry duty, even Lord Putcha. He was starting to look pale and weak, but he insisted that he take his turn.
An hour or two before dawn, I woke to Danvir shouting to rouse us. I rolled to my feet, my bow already in my hands, to see the Clansman launch himself at an Elf, his sword drawn and ready. Without thought I nocked an arrow, but rather than draw and loose, I waited, and I listened. I could feel the forest around me, the animals and the plants. More importantly I could feel a group approaching us from another side. More Elves!
Danvir made short work of the Elf and raced back to his Lord’s side.
“There’s more coming!” I warned. “We need to get out of here.”
“Which way?” Danvir asked.
I pointed off to the side, away from the trail we were following.
“Then we keep following the trail.” Lord Putcha suggested.
“Only thing left to do.” I agreed.
The others had gathered their packs by now and were ready to move out. Rain handed my pack to me and I nodded in thanks.
“Same as yesterday.” I announced. “I’ll be at the front and Rain at the rear.”
There was no objection and so, despite the dark, we left our camp behind.
We hadn’t gone far before we encountered another river, this one considerably wider than the previous two and looking substantially deeper. I glanced up and down the riverbank, the trail I was following went in both directions.
“It looks like they split up here.” I reported to Danvir. “I can’t say who went which way, but they didn’t cross the river.”
“Which way do you think more likely?”
I shrugged. “I’m inclined to think that we should go upriver, but it’s only a guess.”
Danvir looked at Lord Putcha. “Ravi?”
Lord Putcha coughed hard for a moment and spat out more phlegm.
“We’ll go upriver.” He replied.
The decision made, I led the party along the bank. I heard a shout from the rear and turned to see what the matter was.
“Keep going.” Rain called from back the trail. “There was another Elf. Gone now.”
I pushed on and the trail soon left the riverbank, diving back into the forest.
A few hours later, the sun now well over the horizon, I almost fell over some flat rocks. Their outline was too straight to be natural and a quick look revealed more concealed under the thin soil.
“This looks like a trail of some kind.” Danvir observed.
“It does.” I answered. “I think it was paved.”
“Paved?” Lord Putcha coughed. “Who paves a trail?”
“It may have been a road at one time.” I mused. “Maybe Em-Nuhdet really does exist. There’re many stories of the things they did there. Building a road through the Bleakwood hardly seems strange considering what else they’re supposed to have done.”
Danvir looked up and down what we could see of the supposed road.
“It looks like it heads back to the river.”
“Which way did they go?” Lord Putcha demanded.
I scanned the ground and surrounding plant life.
“I can’t be certain. Someone, probably the Elves, have been using this road extensively, but if I had to guess, then they headed towards the river. It’s where I’d look for a settlement.”
“Good enough.” Lord Putcha decided. “Let’s go, we can’t stay standing around here.”
I led the party onto the road and towards the river. Travel was much easier on what was left of the road. It was overgrown, heavily in parts, but it looked as though the Elves had been routinely cutting back the undergrowth. After a while Rain caught up with me.
“Kasper is watching the rear.” The tribesman informed me. “I thought you could use another set of eyes with you.”
“Thanks.” I replied. “I’ll take the right, you watch the left.”
“Am I wrong in thinking we should have seen more Elves by now?” Rain asked as he watched his side of the road.
“No.” I replied. “I’m certain that under normal circumstances we’d never have made it this far. Something has the Elves distracted.”
“I’ve no idea. Whatever it is, it’s good for us.”
I pointed at the road. “This road was heavily used until maybe as recent as a few weeks ago. Elves are usually hard to track, they don’t leave much sign behind them, but not here. Here, they’ve felt comfortable enough to not hide their presence. To me that says we’re somewhere near a major settlement of theirs.”
“But we’ve seen no territory markings.” Rain argued.
“No, we haven’t and that has me worried. It’s possible that we never saw any because we were already in their territory when we got off the boat.”
“Uh.” Rain replied. “Why haven’t we seen more of them so? Surely they know we’re here.”
The young tribesman held his bow a little tighter and checked its draw. As he did so, an arrow flashed across the trail, just missing him.
“Gods damn it!” He yelled in surprise.
I already had my bow in hand and an arrow nocked, but I couldn’t see who had attacked us. Danvir, leading the rest, ran up behind us. Another arrow flashed across the road, almost hitting Lord Putcha, quickly followed by another arrow, then another. I spotted one Elf and loosed one of my few remaining arrows in his direction, missing him.
“We can’t stay here!” I shouted.
“Move it!” Danvir shouted, as more arrows flashed by us.
We ran along the road towards the river, with the Elves close behind us. I sprinted ahead of the party, then spun around, an arrow nocked and drawn, loosing it at the first Elf I saw. The arrow took the elf in the leg and I was happy enough to at least have disabled one. I rejoined the party at the rear, sprinting hard towards the front again. Seeing what I had done, Rain was quick to follow. Whether through luck, or skill, he managed to kill his target. I reached the front and spun around again, loosing another arrow. It seemed that both mine and Rain’s bows had a greater range than the Elvish bows, something that we were quick to take advantage of.
It couldn’t last.
We both ran out of arrows in short order and were forced to stow our bows. Ahead of us, I saw the forest thin a little and realised we were almost to the river. I prayed to Equola that there was a bridge of some sort, we’d never make it across the river if we were forced to wade.
I heard a scream behind and looked over my shoulder. Kasper was down, an arrow protruding from his side. Rain was sliding to a stop to help him, but Kasper waved him on as he drew his sword.
“Keep going!” He shouted, hoarsely. “I’ll – “
Whatever he had been about to shout was cut short as another arrow struck his throat. He gagged and fell limply to the ground.
Rain swore and ran after us, only just managing to stay ahead of the Elvish arrows.
The forest suddenly disappeared from around us and we found ourselves racing over a gracefully built stone bridge. My prayers had been heard. Moss and lichen covered most of the stonework, making our footing treacherous, but aside from a few heart stopping slides, we made it across. The Elves, for their part, slid to a stop at the start of the bridge. They still loosed arrows after us, but as we gained the opposite bank and continued our mad dash, we left them and their arrows behind.
It took us a few minutes to realise that they’d broken off, and when we did, we slowed to a stop, unsure of what just happened. I looked back towards the bridge, noting that the Elves had melted back into the forest, like they’d never been there.
“They stopped.” Rain said in confusion. “Why did they stop? They could have had us!”
“The boy’s not wrong.” Lord Putcha wheezed.
I looked closely at the Clan Lord, concerned. He was pale and obviously struggling to breathe.
“You need to lie down.” I advised him as I stepped closer.
Lord Putcha waved away my advice. “I’m fine. Just need to catch my breath.”
“The poison is still working against you.” I told him as I pressed my palm to his forehead.
“I’m fine.” The Clan Lord protested.
“No, you’re not.” I disagreed.
“Maybe you should rest for a moment Ravi.” Danvir advised. “I know the rest of us could use a moment to catch our breaths.”
“Maybe you’re right.” Lord Putcha gasped. “Just a few moments. No longer.”
The Clan Lord wavered for a moment and collapsed to the ground. I grabbed him as he fell and managed to ease his fall. Danvir rushed to his Lord’s side as I checked him over.
“He’s alive.” I confirmed to Danvir’s relief. “Weak, but alive. The poison has weakened him considerably. I’m not sure how he managed to keep going this long.”
“You said it wouldn’t kill him.” Danvir accused.
“And it won’t. I did point out that it would weaken him though. His body is fighting off the toxin, but it’s taking a toll on him.”
“Can we move him?”
“We have no choice.” I answered shortly. “I don’t know why the Elves stopped hunting us, but that might change again. We can tie some branches together and make a litter, it’ll be rough going, but manageable, as long as we’re on this road.”
Danvir nodded. “Good enough.”
I told Rain to take Red and gather some long branches then pulled Danvir aside.
“We can’t continue this mad hunt.” I warned him. “Almost half the band are dead, and Lord Putcha himself is now unconscious. I know his son is important to him, but you must see that there’s no possible way he could still be alive.”
Danvir shook me off and stepped back.
“If you think that I’m going to go against Ravi’s wishes, think again.” He hissed angrily. “I’ve no desire to die here, but if that’s what fate has in store for me, then so be it. We continue.”
“Gods save me from pig headed Clansmen.” I muttered, as the warrior stalked off.
I cast around me and found a few branches that I spent the next few minutes stripping while I cooled off. Anger wasn’t going to get us out of here alive. I grabbed some vines and with Rain’s help we cobbled together a rough litter for Lord Putcha.
Before long, we were on the move again. Rain and Red carried the litter between them, while Danvir walked beside them, keeping an eye on his Lord. As I led our little band along the road, I noticed that the forest had almost become silent and I felt an itch between my shoulder blades, as though someone was watching us. The silence became more and more oppressive until we were all glancing around us, searching for some unseen threat.
“Gods damn it!” I heard Danvir swear. “Why don’t they attack?”
“Who?” Rain asked, nervously.
“Those damned Elves. I can feel them out there, in the darkness, waiting, watching!”
“Keep quiet.” I called back to them. “Just keep your eyes open and keep moving.”
I heard them muttering behind me, and ignored them, focusing on the road ahead of us. Without Lord Putcha’s commanding presence, they were starting to fray, even Danvir. I had to hold us together if we were going to get out of here alive. I stopped suddenly, not quite believing what my eyes were seeing.
Red almost walked into my back, so distracted was she.
“Why did you stop?” She asked, angrily.
I pointed ahead of me.
“Oh.” She gulped.
“What is it?” Both Danvir and Rain asked at the same time.
“I’d say we’ve found Em-Nuhdet.” I said in wonderment.
The road we’d been following ended abruptly at a short set of steps that led up to a stone platform, built about waist height above the forest floor. Beyond that I could see more sets of stairs rising up to higher platforms, all of stone. Looming at the back of this strange construction, was a huge pyramid. The forest looked as though it hadn’t yet gotten much purchase on the stonework, but the trees and undergrowth grew right to the edges of the skilfully laid stonework.
We climbed the steps onto the first platform and found the remains of dozens of small stone buildings, many filled with mud and debris, as though a huge flood had washed through. I looked around and shook my head.
“This isn’t recent damage.” I concluded. “It’s decades old.”
“A flood you think?” Danvir asked, as he stood beside me.
“Probably. I’d guess that it happens here periodically, although maybe not so catastrophically. It’d explain why everything is built off the ground.”
Danvir shrugged. “Anything here worth looking at?”
“Nothing that I can see. There are more buildings on the next platform. We should see if we can find an intact one. We need rest.”
“Agreed. Lead on.”
I led our small party across the stone platform. Past the ruined houses. I guessed, although they were quite small, to the stairs that led up to the next platform.
“Have you noticed how clean the stonework is?” I asked Danvir, quietly, as we climbed the steps.
“I’d expect all these steps to be covered in moss, lichen and the like, but it’s as though they’ve been kept clean.”
Danvir quirked an eyebrow. “You think someone lives here?”
“Someone that scares the Elves, I think.” I replied careful to make sure that Red or Rain weren’t listening. “You saw how they broke off at the bridge.”
“Let’s hope they’re friendly to us.” Danvir muttered. “If they’re still here.”
I nodded. “If they’re still here.”
We stepped onto the new platform, that was perfectly flat, as far as I could see, and all built about six feet above the forest floor. A wide thoroughfare led to a wide set of stairs at the far end, which led up to yet another, higher, platform, on which the pyramid was built. On either side of the thoroughfare were several dozen larger stone buildings, homes, probably. All built close together, and each with two floors. Surprisingly, each of the houses had wooden doors and those that we could see, looked well cared for. I looked at Danvir in surprise. This part of the city did not look abandoned. Danvir eased his sword in its scabbard, making sure he’d have a clear draw if he needed it. I checked my knife.
“Wait here.” He ordered Rain and Red.
We made our way cautiously to the nearest house and he positioned himself on one side of the door, drawing his sword. I took a breath and knocked on the door.