Grum-blud had tied Will to the Onocentaur called Bunt, while he rode upon the other whose name was Dob. He had no particular preference or fondness for either, but since Bunt was the whinier of the two, he opted to straddle Dob, to be further away from the latter’s annoying protestations. Despite their complaints to the contrary, the donkey-half of these two still maintained the trait of their Surface World counterparts of being sure-footed and slow-plodding creatures when moving over rough terrain bearing a burden. This characteristic of donkeys and mules was desirable in the Surface World for slow excursions involving mountain and canyon travel, which was precisely why these animals were employed to safely convey visitors up and down the narrow trails along the canyon’s edge.
Dob and Bunt were resentful and relatively sullen, as Grum-blud urged them on through the forest trails at a pace they were not accustomed to. After all, they were part human. He knew the fire would be coming soon, and if they did not hurry they would be overtaken by it. They were at least a half day’s journey from the rendezvous point with the agents of The Pan. He worried what exactly he would say when he met up with them without the Manticores in his company. He wondered where that fool Shellberd had run off to when he was supposed to stay with the onocentaurs until after the siege. When Grum-blud had fled the interior walls of Azragoth, he’d barely made the gates of the Barbican before the fiery manticores came plunging through shrouded and lit in a ghostly light. The oil and tar on their hides burned first before the heat of the flame lit their skin and fur. He’d climbed up on the gate, was nearly sprung off of it before he’d caught the rope of Mogawr and been pulled free. The Manticore dragged him as it ran, its hide afire, but its large segmented tail still free of flame, as it bounded through the forest ahead of the others. Grum-blud had jumped upon his tail, the halter rope held tightly in his fist and his arms hugging tightly to the segmented arch for as long as he could until ultimately, he fell off as the Manticore juked back and forth through the brush and low limbs, heedless of its rider. Flames licked at Grum-blud as he struggled to stay on as the tail pumped and flexed up and down in the erratic winding run. When the oil flames reached his arms and ignited his hair he rolled off screaming in agony and anger, cursing the Manticore his bad luck and the pain that curled and burned his arms until he was able to roll and smother the flame. He’d scrambled away, found the onocentaurs, no sign of Shellberd and they’d taken the road downward away from the growing fire. Finding Will had been a sudden turn of his horrible luck. Finding the group of outworlders, and marking them for death, was only a matter of time.
Maeven moved into the brush along the side of the road when she saw the grass turned down and pine needles disturbed where someone, most likely Will, had hastily moved off the winding road to lay low behind a stand of trees. The light was poor because of the thick cover of trees and the interlocking branches and canopy of leaves towering a good twenty to twenty-five feet overhead. A short declivity created a bowl behind the stand, allowing a person ample room to hide effectively either to allude or ambush the travelers moving down the forest road.
The rest of us waited for Maeven, knowing that if we crowded her, we might obscure the tracking signs she was looking for. We had lit a torch to aid her sight, but she had held us off when she noticed the signs that the roadside brush had been disturbed. I stood as far as she had given me leave, holding forth the burning torchlight as it flickered in the darkling dappled light. Once she’d moved behind the roadside tree blind, she’d discovered the pressed brush and felt the moistened group and felt some oily slick substance on the dried leaves. She came around from behind the stand of trees rubbing her fingers together, with a curious look upon her face, looking closely at them as she came into the brighter light. Her eyes lifted, and the torchlight flame danced in gleams of twin golden reflections in her eyes.
“Blood,” she whispered, letting the implication hang in the cool stillness of the air.
“What did you find back there?” I asked.
“Looks like Will or someone, was hiding back there. Looks like they might have had a slight injury, and someone else may have dragged them back from their hiding place for a short distance, but they walked out of here, through the forest. If this was Will, I do not think he was given much choice in the matter. If we leave the road, however, the chances are high we’ll get disoriented and perhaps lost since there is no real trail that way. Whoever has Will, they are avoiding a confrontation with us for now, but they may be following us from some distance.”
“Doesn’t seem like the Protectorate’s way of doing things, does it?”
Maeven shook her head, soberly, “No it doesn’t.”
“Who else might it be?”
“If you are seeking a list of who might be our enemies here, you have a lot to choose from.”
“Yes, but many of them would not hesitate to confront us aggressively, so that narrows the list down a bit.”
“We’re gonna have to be careful and watchful as we go on. I would like to fan out a little and angle behind, perhaps catch some sign of them running parallel to us, see who they are.”
“It’s too dangerous for us to get separated.”
“That’s true, so you will need to lead the others along the road, keep whoever is watching focused on you all so that I can slip away behind unnoticed and find out who they are and perhaps get to them before they do anything to Will.”
“They won’t do anything to Will,” I responded.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because they took Will because they need leverage to deal with us. Will is too valuable to them right now.”
“Do you think Will would sell us out?”
I couldn’t answer that question and found myself looking off thoughtfully which provided Maeven with all of the answers she needed.
“Then there isn’t much time. Take the others onward. I’ll find out what I can and come back to you. Follow the road.”
“Do you know the way?”
“I know enough about these woods to get through them. Storm Hawk, remember?” she grinned.
I smiled and nodded, “Go to it then. Be safe. Come back soon.”
I returned to our company as they waited while Maeven and I conferred in private.
“Did you find Will?” Miray asked.
“Not yet, my dear, but we’re working on it.”
“So, what’s the plan from here?” Christie asked.
“We’re to proceed down the road as planned. The forest behind is burning and it won’t be long before the wind shifts and drives it more this way. The woods eventually yield and thin out. There is a slough in the woods ahead which might explain what we’ve all been smelling. We need to stay close and together. James still has his halberd weapon. I have the honor sword. Mason, you still have Maeven’s bow and the quiver of arrows. Begglar, I assume that staff is for more than just walking. Christie, be prepared to use that saber and dagger. Matt, Laura, Tiernan, Dominic and Chris, as Ezra said, there are more weapons available to you than those with a sharpened edge or pointed tip. Use your eyes and ears to be watchful. Seeing and identifying the approach, direction and nature of an enemy can be just as important as any parry or strike. If we have to fight, even though you are unarmed, we need you to be looking in the direction we cannot. Let us know what you see that we don’t. Stay in the center, between each of us who have a weapon, but watch beyond us. Some enemies may even descend from the trees so don’t just look to the left or right of you. You are our eyes and ears. Pick a direction each of the five of you. The four compass points and the trees above should cover it.”
“Where should I look?” Miray asked, not wanting to be left out.
“Why, I thought, since you were already down there, short-stuff, you could keep an eye on the ground ahead of us. Ezra taught me an important lesson, remember? Be aware of the ground upon which you stand to fight. That makes your perspective extremely important. Don’t let us down, missie.”
Miray giggled, delighted with my answer.
“Does Maeven want her bow back?” Mason asked.
“I expect when she does, she’ll ask for it. You keep it for now. I will never forget that eye shot you made with that Moon Sprite. It strobing away and you put out its lights, just as cleanly as any marksman. I expect she would be honored to let you bear it a while longer.”
“Where’s Maeven going?” Nell asked.
“Leave that to her,” I answered, “She’s running a brief errand and will join us soon.”
Begglar smiled knowingly but didn’t seem to agree with my assessment that the scent we were encountering was merely the sewage seep of a deep wood slough. The thick arched eyebrow was one of his tells. He kept slightly sniffing the air, looking from one direction and then another. His eyes shone forth under a furrowed brow, lit again with that old rascal fire, that I’d once seen in them. As a father now, he was mindful of not causing premature alarm with young ones, as he gently stroked Miray’s golden hair, delighted by her youthful exuberance and more than willing to shield her, for however much longer he could from the harsher realities present in this Mid-World. A wistfulness shone in his eyes as well, stilling his tongue from saying more. Life handed out brutal acquaintances with the brutality of mankind and the curse of a fallen world at odds with the One, in doses of time. While time was inexorable and sometimes seemed deliberately slow when our wanting was placed upon the uncertain future. The pace of time’s march shifted by one’s perspective. To a child, the lengths of growing up might seem like forever, but to a loving and engaged parent, that time seemed to be sped up and slipping away all too quickly. Awareness of evil, signified the loss of innocence, much like with the fruit of that accursed tree in the ancient Surface World garden where all mortal life began.
The smell he’d detected was more than just the organic putrefaction of a stagnant slough. It was that of rotting flesh. He’d remembered the distinctive smell from his days aboard ship when Xarmnian ships had plied the waters and captured a ship of a friend of his, which he’d later found floating derelict and adrift. He’d recognized the vessel, and he and his crew had hailed it with no response and no flag signal. When they come close enough to board her, he saw why there had been no response. From the mast to the mizzen sail rigging, the boom and cross sails hung with the dangling bodies of the sailor crew. The smell of that terrible sight stuck forever in his memory. It had not gotten any better when he and his men climbed the ropes to the topsails and worked their way across the boom, cutting each and every one down, to give them a more dignified burial at sea.
The lights of the mysterious creatures moved through the dark forest, illuminating the boles of the trees, flashing this way and that with blinding speed. Maeven had barely left the company when she witnessed the distance brilliant spectacle of their passing flickering in the distance through the trees. She moved as quietly and as quickly as she could, knowing that the woodland faeries did not often reveal themselves unless they were on a distinct mission. And if one was careful enough, and could get close enough, one might have the pleasure of hearing them sing.
The faeries could appear small or large depending on whatever suited them, for size was also not a limitation for them, but an aspect of their physicality that they could change at their whim. When in motion, however, especially when moving rapidly through such a dense forest, they often appeared small to easily sweep through and around trees without the constraint of a larger mass. In smaller form, however, their quadrupedal wings appeared to flutter in a circular motion with a distinctive brilliance scintillating on the tips of their wings, moving in such rapidity, as to appear like they moved within a brightly glowing ring of light, folding and enfolding upon itself.
Maeven wasn’t the only one to witness the bright shining lights coming rapidly through the back forest. Grum-blud also saw the flashes behind him and panicked. He drove his boot into the flank of Dob and grabbed the short hair ridge of the onocentaur’s neck mane. “Get going, you good-for-nothing, jackass!” he shouted. Dob, flinched and kicked at Grum-blud’s harsh treatment, but found not hoof contact that satisfied him. Dob ran into the back of Bunt, almost toppling Will to the ground, had he not been securely tied to the packs the ono also carried.
“Get us outta, here! The wood is haunted by faeries!”
The light behind then grew in intensity, and arc welder-like streaks whooshed passed and overhead, banking and then curving around and doubling back upon them, buzzing them, close enough to strike their heads.
Grum-blud flinched and ducked under the swoop barely able to stay on Dob, as he bucked and spun in fear of the creatures.
“You got us into this, troll! Bad luck follows you everywhere!”
Bunt brayed loudly, bouncing off of trees, attempting to run, but finding no good place to get into the trees but by following the barely discernable footpath trail they had been following.
“Curse you, you stupid troll!” Bunt brayed angrily, “May the satyrs eat your eyes out!”
Bunt took off on one direction, abandoning the trail, and Dob took off in another, their fear of the diving and swooping faeries far greater than any abuses to which Grum-blud or The Pan might put to them.
Grum-blud kicked harshly at Dob, but Dob paid him no heed, running faster and faster over the uneven trail, cutting through brush, bouncing off a buried boulder, crushing Grum-blud’s leg and calf between the donkey’s flank and the rock, causing Grum-blud to curse all the more, but lose his grip upon the reigns and roll, tumbling head over heels off Dob’s backside and land face down in the dirt and fallen pine needles of the forest floor. Dob raced away, kicking his hind legs sporadically, but disappeared into the forest without looking back to see where the others had gone.
The rope holding the packs, and Will to the back of the Ono named Bunt, snagged on a jutting branch and Bunt twisted and jerked, side to side trying to get free. At last the coarse rope broke and both Will and the weighted pack fell to the forest floor beneath a fern-like plant, as Bunt took off in the opposite direction also disappearing into the darkened woods.
Maeven saw her opportunity and she took it. The faeries had provided a distraction and she’d witnessed the piggish faced troll go down, separated from the other creatures, Onocentaurs, it appeared, and Will, who had been bound and gagged fell as well. In the melee, and under the flashing lights whizzing to and fro, casting blinding flashes of light through the dark, she could stay low, and get to Will while he lay down under the low forest cover and snatch him away from the Troll. She had not brought a weapon with her, for she had expected this only to be a scouting mission and not a confrontation. The Troll would be on her if he spotted her, and she had no way of knowing who else of the enemy was in the area and might soon respond and rally to the commotion. The faeries continued to dive bomb the Troll so that he dared not get up until they passed. One touch of the faerie wings of its burnished body and his head would turn into crumbling ash and salt—faerie dust, indeed.
Maeven crouched low, knowing that a touch by the faeries would prove disastrous to her as well, but she did not believe these were haphazard in their persistence to cow the troll and keep him down. She crawled and ran through the forest brush, weaving around the dense trees, finally arriving at the place where she’d seen Will fall and dove down under the ferns.
Will lay winded, the gagged pulled tightly against his neck, his nostrils flaring to compensate for the breaths he could not take due to the gagging cloth. Maeven reached down, snagged his arm and dragged him towards her. Pulling out a short blade from a belt she turned him over, slicing through the rope that bound his hands, then proceeding down to free the one tied to his feet. She jerked at the knot binding the kerchief like cloth binding his mouth, and when she could not pull it loose she slid the knife between his hair and the cloth, scoring the fabric enough to begin ripping it apart. Once loose, Will reached up and snatched it away, his breath coming out in an audible wheeze.
“Oh, that stunk!” he gasped, “So glad to get that out of my mouth. Smelled like that troll wiped his rear with it.”
“Might have,” Maeven hushed him, and Will blanched and looked like he was going to be sick.
“Don’t think about that now. Hush. It’s still out there and it has that sword you put between your shoulders. Bad move, that. You can never get to it when you need to. It’ll never clear the scabbard.”
Will winced and groused, “Little late to be telling me now!”
“Stay down under here for a moment. Let me see if I can spot him.”
Maeven eased up poking her head just above and between the ferns trying to determine if she could see over the top of them without giving their position away.
She saw the faeries swoosh over a spot where she figured the troll was and saw the flash of a blade swipe at the air where the faerie had been. Two faeries crisscrossed over him and the blade slashed wildly about, trying desperately to hit and ward off the creatures buzzing him. All at once the silver of the blade did strike and appear to hit one of the diving creatures, and the blade rang with a metallic clang and a shower of sparks erupted as the sound of the Troll exulting bellowed forth from the brush, but it was short-lived. The blade that had made contact fizzled with further sparks as its tip, heated to white-hot, fell from the top of the blade and dropped onto Grum-blud seeming to scald him from the sounds of his howling, and a string of foul obscenities, that Maeven had never heard before or since in the Surface World or the Mid-World belched out of the angry troll, such that if it were possible, just hearing them would scald a person’s ears anywhere within proximity. And suddenly, the faeries did something that caused Grum-blud’s cursing to cease and he howled, stopping his ears, and the sound of his running form crashing through the brush and fleeing the area, could just barely be heard behind the most mellifluous and beautiful noises that Maeven had ever heard. The faeries had begun to sing.
We had not gone very far down the old road, before we heard rustling over the tops of our heads. Laura searched the canopy sensing something was above us, but could not make out what it was, for the treetops swayed and rustled, and gently clacked and popped as branches swayed and collided with the high breeze flowing over the tops of the trees. But the sounds were more than just that. Something or somethings were moving through the treetop canopy as if running across the roof of the leafy ceiling. The others were tempted to look upward, away from their focal directions, but I admonished them not to be distracted. This was just the sort of scenario that would require eyes all around. Those in our company with weapons stiffened not knowing exactly where to point their sharpened aim, blade-edge or striking blunt, but I bade them wait for the direction of assault to be identified and approach it with calm and cool, if possible.
More noises were heard skipping from the upper boughs as we proceeded down the road, blades drawn, arrows ready, and turned down the curve of the road. At last, we saw what had been causing that horrendous odor we had all detected. A haze of smoke wafted across the roadway, with a phosphorescent glow somewhere behind it, similar to moonlight. Begglar was the first to speak, but it wasn’t to me.
“Miray, are you watching the ground, lassie? Please focus on the ground, darlin’. Keep us safe.”
Begglar did not want her to see what we saw silhouetted in front of the smoky phosphorescence over the road ahead, and I did not want Miray seeing it either. If we could spare Miray’s innocence for just a few seconds more, they were worth it. Every moment of innocence is precious. This forest was haunted indeed.