Einarr kept a nervous watch while the others saw to Irding’s field dressing, neither of them certain how much good a watch would do in a wood where the trees themselves might rise up against you. Erik, being not terribly skillful with medicine, inspected his son’s maille while Runa and Jorir did what they could for his ribs.
“That bear ripped into it pretty good, Irding.” Disgust filled Erik’s voice. “You’re sure the stenjätte didn’t damage it?”
Irding grunted in pain. “Jorir checked it over on the boat, same as yours.”
“Is it still wearable?” Einarr did not look back at them. Worrying about wolves at this point probably wouldn’t do them any good, but he had heard them, earlier. A wolf pack ambush, now, might be more than they could handle.
“Oh, sure, long as nothing tries to stab him in the chest again. The links aren’t broken – quite – but they’re more than a little bent out of shape.”
“It’s not like – oof – I’m going to be doing much fighting for a while anyway.” The strain was audible in his voice. “My bow cracked same time my ribs did.”
Einarr and Erik both groaned at that revelation, although it would have been a small miracle if it had not done so.
“Use mi-” Einarr started.
“Use mine,” Erik said at the same moment, his voice more insistent. “I’m better off in the thick of things anyway.”
“You sure you can draw that?” Jorir sounded skeptical, but Irding laughed.
“If the old man can pull it, I can pull it.”
Before the one-upmanship could go any farther, Einarr interrupted. “If you’re done, we should get moving again.”
“I think we’ve done what we can,” Runa said.
“Then let’s go.” Einarr re-shouldered his own bow and checked that Sinmora was clear in its sheath. They’d sat around too long already, and the forest had begun to grow restless around them.
As they left the small clearing they had claimed, the foliage closed in behind them.
Irding’s wound slowed them, and as the light in the wood grew warmer with the waning of the day they still had not spotted the cave Auna had told them to look for.
“We’re lost, aren’t we.” Runa finally said what they had all been thinking for several hours.
Einarr looked at the trees surrounding them. “In a wood like this? We could be walking in circles a hundred feet from our goal and never know it.” He growled, annoyed. “If we don’t find a way to blaze our trail, we’ll never get out of here. Has no-one seen any rocks?”
They didn’t dare cut their signs into living wood, not in the Woodsman’s territory, and neither Runa nor Jorir had charcoal on them. In a less overgrown wood they could have used dead twigs or leaves, but he didn’t trust those not to be gobbled up by the rapidly growing vines. That left rocks, or carving into the soil itself.
The others all shook their heads. With a sigh, Einarr drew Sinmora. They had to do something, and if the battlegrounds were anything to judge by, this might be safe. “If this brings the leshy’s servants down on our heads, I’m sorry.”
Without another word, Einarr plunged the point of his sword into the earth to carve a large arrow in the dirt.
Silence reigned. For a long moment, none of them dared move. Einarr strained his ears, listening for any sound of outrage from the wood around them. When it did not come, he sheathed his sword again. “Right. Let’s go.”
The light grew feeble, and Irding’s breathing ever more labored. The huldra were counting on them, and the longer this took, the more tenuous their position became. Even still, Einarr knew they would have to stop and seek shelter soon. A miserable camp that would be, with no fire and no liquor, but he had trouble seeing any way around it.
“We should find a place to rest,” he said aloud after taking another brief survey of the wood around them.
“Auna is expecting us tonight, is she not?” Runa reminded him.
“I rather got the impression that she was hoping, not expecting,” Erik rumbled. “She said herself that none of the huldraken had ever reached the lair. She can hardly fault us for not finding it in one day.”
“Runa’s right.” Irding said, although they could all hear the strain in his voice. “I’ll be fine. We should keep going.”
“The forest becomes a battleground at night,” Einarr said. “And we’re going to want to observe the clearing before we just go sailing in – which will be difficult with you panting like a warhound. We’re camping.”
He heard no further objection, and his companions spread out to search for a decent place where they could all curl up on the ground within view of each other.
Not many minutes later, Runa’s voice came to his ears, drifting as though on the wind through a tall berry bush. Einarr crept off to where she had disappeared into the bushes. “What is it?” he whispered.
There, not fifty feet further on from where they crouched in the bushes, Einarr could see the soft glow of rocks in the moonlight. They rose above the underbrush: from here, he could tell no more. He nodded at Runa before creeping forward.
Ahead of him, a bright spot in the near-blackness of thick forest at nightfall, was a clearing with a large cave in the center of it. No underbrush encroached past the ring of sturdy oaks that surrounded the rise of slate: there was only grass and moonlight, and an apparently empty cave.
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