At least, Einarr thought, the ground in the forest was not sucking mud. It was, however, one of the few hopeful prospects about it, and most of the issue was a result of how ridiculously dense the wood was. Most of the trees they passed were of insufficient girth to serve as a mast.
Here and there the wood would open out into a meadow, where the sun could reach the forest floor and where underbrush had begun to grow up – only to be viciously cut back and trampled over by whatever creatures lived here. It was almost as though rutting stags had been induced to rage and kept there to battle the whole year through. Or perhaps, instead of stags, there were mad bears loose. Einarr struggled to think of what else could have caused the massive gouges marring earth and trees alike. They were far too large to be from battling men – if men even battled on this island. Assuming Runa was right, Einarr doubted many warriors ended up here. Even if she were wrong, however, it would be unusual for an island to war against itself in this age.
He shook his head. So long as they were quick, it wouldn’t matter what it was that did battle in this forest. The tree before him, however, was yet another in the list that may have been serviceable if it hadn’t been so badly damaged. With a sigh, he shook his head. It wasn’t just the physical scars, of course, but the disease that had taken hold from them. “Any luck, Erik?”
“I wonder what would happen if we took a bunch of little ones and bound ‘em together?”
Erik’s idea wouldn’t have been a bad one, he didn’t think – except that none of them had the tools or experience to put it together. Einarr grunted. “Keep looking, then.”
Irding harrumphed, moving on from another skinny tree. “Further we go, the worse everything looks. What in the world is going on in here?”
“Looks like a war’s on.” Jorir stood between trees, looking out into the forest with his arms crossed. “But as to who’s fighting, or why? Couldn’t tell you.”
“Distempered bears?” Einarr ventured. It was half a joke, but no-one laughed. “I want to say it’s none of our business, but if we’re caught out here when the fighting picks back up…”
“Hello?” Needles crunched under Runa’s feet as she took half a step.
Einarr spun on his heel: had she seen someone? He raised an eyebrow, silently asking the question as she turned to look at him. With a shrug she shook her head and returned to peering out into the wood.
This time the movement caught Einarr’s attention, as well – too fast and too brief for him to tell what it was, but something had dashed between trees.
Again no answer but the silence of a startled wood. Cautiously, Einarr turned in a circle where he stood, but saw nothing.
“…I think it’s time we moved on. We’re not likely to find what we need in this section of forest, and we appear to have attracted someone’s attention.”
It was still a risk, of course, but it seemed a better one than hunting down the whatever it was and threatening it. The five of them were in poor shape to be picking fights. Einarr started walking – east, he was relatively sure, but under the canopy it was hard to tell.
Whatever it was that had hidden from them, it did not try to stop their progress. And, indeed, the signs of battle grew less fierce as they walked, even as the underbrush grew dense and slowed their progress. The very air seemed to become dark and heavy. Einarr felt his hackles stand on end, and he felt sure the eyes now on them were unfriendly.
“Runa? What does the lore of the island tell you about this forest?”
“You’re wanting to know what holds this territory, and that I don’t know. Whatever it is, though, I’d rather take my chances with the creatures we spotted earlier.”
“I think you may be right, there.” Something about this overgrown section of an overgrown wood set his teeth on edge in a way that even the svartalfr cave hadn’t.
No-one objected, although Erik gave an uneasy chuckle.
The brush that had seemed thick on their way in seemed even thicker now that they were trying to leave. Thorns that he would swear hadn’t been there before grabbed at their clothes and scratched at their skin with every step, as though the wood itself were trying to keep them there. Einarr, however, had no intention of accepting the hospitality of such a dark presence. Several times he reached for the sword at his belt, but some instinct warned him against chopping at the brambles.
It was almost a relief when the battle-torn section of the wood came back into view and the light increased. Noon was long since passed: even should they find their new mast today, they would be unable to get it back to the Gestrisni before dark. Better to be in the relative open of contested territory where they could fight back than pinned down by brambles if they came under attack.
As they neared the contested section of forest, Einarr caught a definitive look at the thing that had been watching them initially. It wasn’t truly a thing: it appeared to be a woman, fine-boned and curvaceous, with skin the color of tree bark and loam. He saw her, of course, because now she ran as though the demons of Hel herself pursued.
Einarr stole a glance back at his companions: they saw her, too. He raised a hand and tried to rush forward. Tried, because the brambles caught in his trousers and vines stretched across his shins. He very nearly tripped even as he called out to the fleeing girl.
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