Chapter 12: Enchanted forest
The rain had softened into a drizzle, but the sun remained hidden behind heavy clouds and the air had none of the warmth from the previous days. Vineyards were slowly making way to orchards and pastures, and, further on, the rolling hills were dressed in forests painted in vibrant autumn colours. The dust road, now muddy and slippery and full of dirty puddles, looked like an old scar on the grassy landscape, climbing up and down the slopes or following the contours of the hillsides. They met very few people, some farmers and a couple of carts taking fruits to Keln, but it looked as though the rain had drained their spirits. Only cattle seemed to care little about the weather, grazing with perfect indifference, the bells on their necks jangling almost without echo.
Shrouded in mist and the fine curtain of rain, the town seemed asleep from afar, but the streets of the Trade District were coming to life. Shop owners were opening their doors, carts were being loaded with barrels of wine and cider, and travelling merchants were getting ready for an early start on their journey to the capital. Street cleaners were scraping the manure from the cobblestones, loading it onto small carts to take it outside the town and store it for further use as fertilizer in vineyards and orchards. The stuff was soaked and the pungent smell rising from it seemed to stay trapped in the fog, despite the rain.
Keln was much smaller compared to Ardaena and not as crowded, and its Trade District was not divided into trading and manufacturing. Instead one found all of them in the same part of the town: shops, taverns, workshops, inns, markets and so forth. Its main trade was wine, but other kinds of alcohol were produced there—apple cider and various fruit spirits—and most businesses revolved around that. Because of it, and because they were in the season, above the usual stench of a town—for stench it seemed the smell they had been used to, after almost a week of breathing the air of the countryside—there was a ubiquitous, almost nauseating smell of fruits fermentation that seemed to stick to the clothes and hair of anyone spending more than a day in Keln. It was softer now, perhaps because the rain had washed some of it.
The town was also not as clearly segregated as the capital, but with the dominant wind blowing from the north, most wealthy families were living in the northern part, whilst the wineries and distilleries had been built to the south. A network of canals supplied them with water from Kelund.
Few people spared more than a look at their small group. It was a busy time for their businesses and travellers were common, though perhaps not so early. But the rain, the constant dripping from eaves and old gutters, and the growing puddles on the streets made them look mostly downwards.
They had just crossed Kelund on the Trade Bridge, a solid stone structure arching over the river, whose waters were swollen and fast, a positive sign that autumn rains were pouring all over the country. In front of an inn a middle aged man of average height and more than average girth was assisting some guests, who were leaving.
“Blimey! If it isn’t the good doctor.”
The loud enthusiasm surprised them and they turned around. The man came towards them with a laughing face, shielding his eyes with a big hand as he looked upwards.
“Upon my word, Master Combs, your memory is surprising! Greetings, my dear man.”
“Greetings, Doctor Breen. Last time you visited us was four years ago, in early summer,” said the innkeeper, showing his strong teeth. “My lady served you freshly baked apple pies.” His face was all laughing wrinkles.
“That could not be more true,” answered Val, returning the smile. “You look as strong as I remember.”
“My joints are beginning to creak here and there, otherwise I cannot complain.”
“And how is your lovely wife?”
“Oh, she’s much better, thanks to you. She will be pleased to know you are here. And bake you one of those pies again, with fresh apples. Is your son not with you?”
“I’m here, Master Combs,” said Kiran, raising his face and pushing a few loose strands—curling under the damp touch of the mist—from his eyes. “Good to see you again.”
“Kiran?” The innkeeper’s eyes rounded. “Bless my soul, I almost didn’t know you! Look how tall you are and such a fine man. Master Kiran, I should say,” added Combs with a candid smile which made Kiran colour. “My Fionna’s grown into a lady, you know? And she does justice to her name.”
Kiran’s face flushed even brighter. “I’m sure she does,” he said, unable to hide his embarrassment.
His companions snickered, with the exception of Bran, who was growing impatient. Sitting in the rain to listen to idle conversation that did not concern them was irritating. The inn’s guests were tacking up their horses, paying no attention to them or the rain.
“When did you arrive?”
“Last night,” said Val.
“Well, why didn’t you come to stay at our place? You are always welcome.”
Bran cleaned his throat.
“Master Combs, that is very kind of you, but this time it’s a little more complicated and I’m afraid we cannot oblige. I cannot tell you how much I regret it, but our business is pressing.”
“I see you have more company this time,” said Combs, eyeing the young riders with undisguised curiosity.
“Valan, we must go,” said Bran, trying to keep a civil tone, although that failed to conceal his ill-humour.
Bredan thought one of the guests perked his head just then, but the man did not turn. He just moved on the other side of his horse to check the girth.
“Where are you heading, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Fiodhin,” replied Val. “I apologize, Master Combs, but we must leave you. I promise we shall stop by when we return. Please send our best regards to your wife and daughter.”
“Thank you, I shall, though I’m sure they will regret not seeing you. But, Doctor, surely you’ve heard rain’s been much worse in other parts. Been pouring for almost a week. Waters have broken some bridges, is what I heard.”
They were turning to leave, but that stopped them. They knew nothing of it. Neither did the fort’s staff, apparently.
“People tend to exaggerate,” said Bran.
“So they do, sir, but I have it on good authority that the bridge in Appleby is down, but two days from here. And before that, folk going to Damerling had to turn round in Thorpes, I heard.”
“Perhaps they did something about it by now,” said Bredan.
“I doubt it, sir, the weather’s been too bad. You might want to sit a couple of days, till the waters calm,” suggested Combs.
“Out of the question!” said Bran, so firmly he startled the poor innkeeper, who looked at the doctor as though asking where he had found himself such friends. “We shall take our chances.”
“Forgive my impetuous friend, Master Combs, it is just that we cannot afford to delay,” said Val. “Is there any other road we could take?”
“Sure there is,” answered the man, brightening. “You might even say it’s a shortcut, if you don’t mind a bit of wilderness. Never been there myself, but folk who have said the road is as fine as any.”
By the time they reached a small village, nestled in a shallow valley with gentle slopes, man and horse were soaked, tired and chilled to the bones. Daylight was not fading yet, but, since they were all new to those parts, Val suggested they should spend the night there.
“Better in a village than out in the rain,” he said. “Here, at least, our clothes will dry and we’ll have clean water.”
“Then let’s find shelter,” agreed Bran. He was not entirely pleased with their progress, but pushing everyone from the first day was not going to help.
“And some food. We should save our provisions.”
Bran consented without any comment. Only, as they very soon came to realize, there was no place where travellers could lodge in, just a tavern where a few local men were warming over drinks. Val dismounted, motioning his son to follow him.
“We shall take care of it. You look too much like soldiers, let’s not alarm the poor people.”
“We are soldiers,” Bran said morosely. They had donned civil clothing under the leather breastplates and warm cloaks on top—now heavy and dripping with water—in the hopes of attracting less attention, but the swords were too big to hide.
“We’ll be right back,” said Val and they slipped inside.
After a time that seemed an eternity, they emerged from the tavern, followed by a fortyish farmer.
That night they slept in a barn, at the edge of the village, on a bed of sweet scented hay. Modest accommodation, meant for livestock and fodder, not people, but it satisfied their needs. The structure had a loft stacked with trusses of hay, from which they improvised a bed. Beneath it their horses were tethered alongside two others and half a dozen goats, all cramped in a space too little for so many occupants, just like their own. But at least it was sheltered and dry and there was food and water for all of them. Two opposite walls had each one opening at the loft’s level, like a window, only without shutters, so the air inside was fresh, but cold. The farmer brought them some old blankets to warm themselves, while their clothes hung on beams or lay spread on hay to dry.
After settling in and politely declining the invitation to sup with the family, they were offered cold food, which they could eat in the barn, and rough cider. Fresh goat cheese, smoked pork fat with garlic, bread and apple jam. Simple food, really, but soft and tasty and plenty to satisfy their hunger. Val advised them to refrain from drinking too much, since home brewed cider tended to be strong, suggesting that a hot tea would be more suitable to chased the chill out of their limbs, so they agreed to both. All of that at almost a quarter of the price they would have paid had they stayed at an inn, plus two rolls of powders for the farmer’s painful joints. Much cheaper than Bran had expected and, on top of that, discretion, for the man had asked no questions about them or their business. Either the doctor had already told him some story—Bran made a note to verify that later—or the man himself was not the prying sort. Whichever the case, the situation suited them. And before they retired, Val paid a visit to the farmer’s house, concerning one of his sons and a fever.
The morning dawned dull and cold, but during the night the rain had ceased and the crisp air, prickling the skin, filled their nostrils with rich scents of grass, wet ground, wood smoke and manure, stirring all their senses. Around the village roosters were calling the beginning of a new day, urging men to come down from their warm beds and prepare for work. Most of the clothes had dried; only the cloaks, which had suffered the most severe water treatment, were still damp. No matter, they would dry on them during the ride, provided it did not rain again.
They had all slept, and quite well, though in the evening they had debated whether they should keep watch. But since anyone trying to sneak up on them would have had to walk past the huddled animals below, making some noise would have been unavoidable. No one could have surprised them, so, one by one, they had allowed the soothing sound of rain to carry them into a peaceful sleep. Even the animals had been surprisingly quiet, seeming to find safety and comfort in the warmth of so many bodies, if not so much room to move.
A frugal breakfast from their own provisions, soured milk from the farmer and a few inquiries about the road—along with many thanks for the kind hospitality and a bag of crisp, juicy apples, courtesy of their host—and they were on the move before the village had fully awakened. And by the briskness of their gait, the horses too, rested, fed and watered, were eager for more exercise.
The soft mud on the road had turned into a viscous, slippery muck that stuck to the hooves and they were making slow progress, particularly uphill. But after an hour or more they reached the trees, where dead leaves littering the road provided enough friction, and they were able to pick up the pace.
At first the forest was fairly thin. Young beeches, ashes and oaks rose to the sky, straight and tall, with maples and hazels growing in their shade and other shoots arching towards the road for light. At their feet prickly brambles crept over roots and fallen branches, atop a carpet of withering plants and litter, flecked with freshly fallen leaves. Here and there were signs of foraging and woodcutting: wheel tracks, trails of disturbed ground leading deeper inside, wood shavings and leafy branches scattered about. As they rode on the view slowly changed and, with it, light dimmed. Trees were larger and little else grew under the closing canopy. Rotten trunks, fallen to the ground, were encrusted with lichens and from their decaying bodies sprung clusters of spindly mushrooms with delicate, shiny caps. Others had popped on the forest floor, their striking crimson hats standing out against the uniform layer of dead leaves, the colour of old copper, shed on former autumns.
“Mushrooms!” cried Bert, excited by the sudden recollection of a certain dinner from a few days before. Who would forget that?
“Oh, yes, they are superb. I suggest you stay away from them, unless you are bored with life,” said Val, spoiling his joy. “Those, however, are quite a treat,” he added a few moments later, showing Bran the little bulges in the leafy carpet, where less conspicuous mushrooms were pushing towards light, following the last days’ rain.
“What do you think, Captain? Should we take a break to stretch our limbs?” asked Bredan.
Bran agreed, on condition that they kept it short. “Though I doubt we can make fire tonight. Everything is damp,” he said, taking a deep breath of the musty air.
“They taste good even raw,” said Val.
“You say so now, but these will make us less thirsty than the dry, salty food in our packs. We should be mindful of our water. Gathering it in the absence of a source is time consuming.”
Bran’s lips pressed together slightly.
They—Val and Kiran, that is, for they would not risk entrusting a novice with the task—gathered only enough mushrooms for one meal, while the rest idled about and the horses grazed on what little grass trimmed the road sides. Then they took off.
Gradually all hints of folk passage disappeared, leaving the place pristine. The road, no wider than two people riding abreast, wound left and right, up and down, cutting its way in the shade of the great trees, whose tall branches met and entwined above it like an old, tattered roof. It must have been very pleasant during hot summer days, when the sunlight sifted through the foliage without heating the air. But even now, despite the overcast sky, the forest was a marvel of colours: from green to brilliant yellow, patched with orange and scarlet fading into a mellow copper. Every now and then a gust of wind tousled the leaves at the top, throwing them into a frenzy of movement that rippled through the canopy, shaking off the weak ones to add new layers to the brittle carpet. Down at their level it was just a soft, whistled whisper and, besides their voices, only the muffled clapping of hooves and the occasional calls of unseen birds broke the silence.
Some of the oldest trees, giants with thick boughs and twisted bodies, had sharp excrescences growing in their cracks and hollows, like scabs on healing wounds. Small and clustered like miniature icicles, they were so inconspicuous, the way they matched the colour of the bark, that an untrained eye would have easily missed them. But Kiran drew Val’s attention as though he had discovered a treasure.
“Bless me!” escaped a little louder from the doctor’s lips. He threw a quick glance towards their companions and pulled closer to take a better look. “Suuri? I haven’t seen these in a long time.”
His son nodded, raising a finger to the ear that said listen. “They need true silence. Absence of sound. That’s rare… Imagine this place at night.”
“Something wrong?” Bran’s voice had a faint echo.
The others stopped as well. And only then it hit them that everything around was still and disturbingly quiet. They shivered.
“No, no,” said Val, moving, “carry on.” When he believed they were not heard, he resumed the conversation. “I’m astonished how many they are. Imagine what must be deeper inside.” A thought stroke him. “Could this be a Blessed Ground?”
Kiran was glowing. “Not right here, but I feel there is one somewhere in these hills. Do you know even some of the mushrooms are, in fact, a kind of fenari?”
“They probably feed on decaying vegetation.” A tender smile flourished on his lips. “The forest is very old. It brings back memories.” Just as he said it the nightmares of the last weeks crept into his mind, tainting those memories, and his smile faded. Something shifted inside him.
“What a pity we cannot explore,” said Val with regret. Then he noticed the change in his son. “Is he still sleeping?”
“… I’m not sure.”
“What do you mean?”
“Last time he woke up, his presence was almost physical. I felt him pushing me aside in my own body, taking control of it. Now… well, at some point I’ve become aware of another consciousness, besides mine. As though he perceives things by himself, instead of through me… I don’t even know how to describe it.”
“Through you… I wonder how he does that. Though it is said he is always aware, it doesn’t feel so.”
“He most likely is, but in a way which I am not aware of.”
“Nor anyone else. Nothing feels particularly odd about you.”
Kiran’s mouth smiled against his feelings. “Aside from those traits which people find so unsettling?”
“They get used to those. I meant something which could not be explained.”
“Perhaps it’s because when he sleeps I’m unable to sense his presence, to the point I completely forget he exists. I’m just me… However, now I feel there are two minds inside one body. I am aware of both of us, but I don’t feel him coming forwards. It’s so strange.”
“I don’t think so. I hope not. It is probably the place that roused his consciousness, not danger. But let’s not worry and give him reasons to.”
“Would he be safer on a Blessed Ground?”
“It crossed my mind, but I don’t feel him… inclined towards this place. It’s almost as though he were just an observer—interested enough to be awake, but otherwise passive. Whether I like it or not, I feel we should not stop yet.”
Val’s chest tightened. Perhaps they should have gone elsewhere. Alone. But where? At least Fiodhin was guarded.
“Val, I don’t hate it as much as I thought. Truly! Even the company is not so bad.”
Val searched his son’s face for a moment. “Just be careful,” he said. “Next time something unusual happens, don’t keep it to yourself.” Then he changed the subject, speaking in his usual voice so as not to raise suspicions.
None of the words had reached other ears, but not just because they had been spoken in low voices or because they rode at the back. Their companions were city folk, they were not accustomed to wilderness. That place, despite its undeniable beauty, had an eeriness which made their skin crawl. It was as if they had stumbled upon a world where no man had set foot before. They had resumed talking, suddenly conscious and uncomfortable with their own voices, but it was only when they were well into the stories that they grew a little louder and livelier. And kept talking until they minds were so engaged, they were aware of the silence no more.
It was well past noon, probably, but it was hard to tell. In Ardaena the bells were tolling the hours, but over the past few days they had been forced to rely on the sun. Now even that was missing.
Since morning the scenery had changed too little. Trees were older, mostly beeches and oaks with massive trunks and twisted roots covered with a soft layer of moss, their crowns shading the ground almost completely; there was more detritus and different bird songs, if any. But no creature, wild or otherwise, had crossed their path, and, although the road had not turned into some broken footpath—as they half-expected, half-feared—the perspective had been invariably narrow: no clearing to get a glimpse of the larger landscape, nor thinning of trees where they could see the sky properly. Fortunately, the stories had lifted their spirits. They rode in twos and, between walking and trotting and a couple of brief breaks, the pairs shuffled. Talking kept their minds busy, but every time they stopped, their voices sunk almost to whispers.
There was nothing for horses to feed upon—their attempts to chew on bark or acorns were gently, but firmly discouraged—but they were allowed to drink from a few puddles they encountered, where rainwater had pooled in shallow depressions on the road. None of the men were really hungry; the thought, alone, of lingering too much in one place, in that seemingly endless forest, made them lose their appetite. They did, however, chew on some of the farmer’s apples. The tasty, sour-sweet flesh proved a decent substitute for water, helping them save the provisions.
“Kiran, are you listening?”
Exhausted… painful… huff, huff, huff…
Frightening… this place… huh? That sound! What was that? Thump… thump… badump…
“Son!” Val’s firm grip on his arm brought him back. “Where’s your mind?” Then lower, “Is it him?”
“No, no, he is quiet, but… I sense someone behind us.”
Instinctively, Val turned to look. His son, too. There was nobody. They were riding last again—‘To watch your backs,’ Kiran had teased them. In truth it was so they could speak without being heard, if they wished so.
“Are you sure?”
Huff, huff, huff…
“Hm, perhaps other travellers,” surmised Val. “This is a road, after all.”
“But not abandoned. It’s unexpectedly clean.” Val threw another look over his shoulder. “Are you sure it was not an animal? Just because we haven’t seen any doesn’t mean—”
“Ah! Travellers, then… Strange, though, that you sensed their presence when none of us has heard anything. There must be a good distance between us.”
Indeed, how—oh, I see. “It must be the place. The nearness of a Blessed Ground and his consciousness must have augmented my perception.”
“Ah, yes, we should have expected this,” said his father. They had never been in similar conditions and the effect was exciting his curiosity. “Very interesting. Tell me—”
“Val! I don’t sense them. Only their horses.” An unpleasant emotion was growing in him.
Val frowned. “How is that possible?”
“I don’t know,” said Kiran. His heart was beating a little faster.
“I’m sure there is an explanation.”
“Well, first of all, this has never happened before. Secondly…” Val thought for a moment, trying to find a logical answer. “Secondly, animals cannot keep their emotions in check, as people do. And horses are not forest creatures, places like this can distress them. It’s not strange that you sensed them first.”
It was a reasonable explanation, however… the same sense of danger he had in his dreams was making his way into his heart again. But if there were such a danger, would he not respond to it? Yet he was not stirring. Don’t go there, Kiran commanded his mind. Think rationally.
Huff, huff… thump… thump… thump…
“Perhaps you’re right,” he answered, pushing away his fears.
“We might even meet at the end of the day. Perhaps ride together tomorrow.” Val winked. “The more, the merrier.”
“I know someone who would not share that sentiment.”
They rode in silence for a while. Val’s arguments were somewhat reassuring, but there was still a bad feeling whirring inside him like a pesky insect.
“It’s strange. It feels as if they came out of nowhere,” Kiran voiced his concerns. “We rode half a day alone and now, poof! They’re here.”
“Nonsense. People do not appear out of thin air.”
“Of course not, but there is only one road… The horses are tired, their breath is heavy.”
“You think they caught up with us?”
“It feels so.”
“That could imply they are pursuing… We must tell Bran. If you are right, it could pose a problem.”
Kiran’s head jerked back. “Tell him what? That I believe we are being followed—never mind we don’t see or hear anything—because I, somehow, sense other horses on the road? How does this sound to you?”
“It doesn’t matter, he has to know. What if they are highwaymen?”
“But… he will just think I’m crazy. You too, for believing me.”
“Since when does that bother you?”
“It always has.”
“My boy,” Val’s tone softened, “I think by now he suspects a thing or two. Whatever his feelings about it, he has agreed for us to join them. That says something about him.”
“He doesn’t trust me.”
“Of all people I expect you to be a wiser and finer judge of characters. I’m sure you felt his heart. Don’t let pride cloud your reason.” The men in front of them looked a little more spirited, but he did not need his son’s senses to tell they were anxious. “Whatever happens here concerns all of us.”
Kiran followed his gaze. “Let’s not alarm them, yet. I might be mistaken.” He was not. And his father was right, but he was not prepared to go to a man like Bran with that sort of ridiculous sounding claim.
Val smiled at that, but did not object. His son had to learn to overcome his sentiments.
Thump, thump, badump…
“A word, please,” said Kiran, coming to Bran’s left side.
To his right Bert took the hint and slowed down, waiting for Val.
“Um, we are being followed… possibly.” Very convincing!
“What?” Bran looked over his shoulder. Needless to say there was nothing to see. However, the view was very limited as it was, both forwards and backwards. “By whom?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t see them.” Kiran felt a knot in his stomach.
“Riders or carts?”
“Riders.” His thighs tightened.
Bran listened, but besides their voices and the rustled steps of their horses, he heard nothing. “Did you hear them?”
“No.” He clenched the reins harder.
“Then how do you know?”
Kiran took a slow breath. “Because I sense we are not alone. We have not been for the last hour, at least.”
Anyone would have had the same reaction, but coming from this man it felt much worse. The captain had no idea how hard he had fought his own resentment and pride just to tell him this, knowing he will not be believed. Because he had to say it. Because if something bad were to happen, it would affect all of them.
“Don’t look at me that way, I know how it sounds. Call it intuition if you wish, or a gift—whichever you prefer—but know that I am certain.”
“Could you elaborate on that?”
Certainly not. There was no explanation he could offer without revealing too much. Bran and his men might have been trustworthy, but this was a different matter altogether. This was his secret, which he and Val had spent a decade hiding. He dreaded revealing it to anyone. But the question was hanging between them, waiting for an answer. What would Val have said? Damn it, Val, you knew he would not believe me!
Bran was measuring him with a mixture of curiosity, disbelief and suspicion, in various proportions. And the longer he waited, the more suspicion surpassed his other feelings.
“Would you have questioned him, had Val come to you?” asked Kiran instead, raising his chin.
Bran gritted his teeth. Damn the brat, he was right about that. Had Val come to him, his first concern would have been their safety, but because it was Kiran, he was dismissing the claim without further consideration, instead wondering about the brat’s sanity or, worse, his intentions. It was a reflex reaction. A weakness.
Gift, you say. He recalled their first night, when Kiran’s hands and words had soothed eleven horses like a spell. A skill, he had called it. Bran had seen skilled men before and none of them were that talented. And what about their first meeting in Ardaena? He had good instincts and they told him there was something queer, almost uncanny about this person. He was clever and knew how to hide it, though, which made him all the more dangerous. As if that awful personality of his were not enough!
And yet… although the dislike was clearly mutual, for Kiran had discreetly kept his distance—which was very convenient—he had been kind to his men and honest, to a degree. Had he not helped them ever since they met again, in his home village, without requesting anything in return? Perhaps he deserved a little credit.
“I’m not sure… less than us, I should say.”
“Suppose you are right,” conceded Bran. “What is so unusual? This is the only road, so if other travellers are heading east, it is either us following them or them following us.”
“I see no problem.”
“Were it not for the fact I have not sensed anyone since morning, be it in front or behind.”
“I’m sorry, but—”
“Nor have we seen any other people before reaching the forest.”
“We would not have if they were already inside.”
“They are behind us,” Kiran said flatly. “If you find it so difficult to take my word for it, consider the fact I would not have come to you if it weren’t true. My self-esteem would forbid it.”
That was probably the brat’s most valid argument. “What are you saying? That they rode faster than us?”
“They could be in a hurry.”
“We are pressed for time, but we do not exhaust our horses. So far there has been too little water, nothing for them to graze on and, despite your men’s anxiety, you kept a steady pace.”
That caught Bran off guard. “Don’t you find this place disturbing?”
“We spend a lot of time in the woods.”
“I’ve seen woods before, but none of them were so quiet. How do you explain the fact we didn’t hear them?”
“Either they heard us and slowed down, or they are not close enough, I cannot say which. But if my suspicion is correct, we will not hear them until they decide to reveal themselves.”
Bran stared at the road in front of him, not knowing what to believe. However strong his impulse to dismiss Kiran’s assertion, he realized it was not entirely impossible. Having unexpected company, that is. Not in that place. It was the fact only Kiran had become aware of it—sensed it; what did that really mean?—that made it questionable. But what if he was right? Many folk wandered the roads and not all of them were friendly. All they had to do was stay alert and be prepared, which they should have been anyway. Would have been, had they not believed that road forsaken. He could inquire about the other matter later. He pulled his horse to a stop and turned to the others.
“Please refrain from making unnecessary comments,” he said in a low, yet commanding voice.
“I was not going to,” Kiran replied curtly.
“Why are we stopping?” asked Bredan.
“We might have company.”
“What? Who? We haven’t met a living soul since we left the village this morning.”
“Maybe other travellers,” suggested Bert. “This is supposed to be a shortcut.”
“Or highwaymen.”—The men turned to Val, startled—“A place like this would make perfect hunting ground.”
They had completely ignored that likelihood. All they had been worrying about during the last hours was the forest itself and whatever might have inhabited it.
“Perfect lair, more likely,” said Bredan. “Are you saying they are following us?”
“I am saying it’s a possibility,” replied Val with calm.
“Just what we needed,” muttered Ceri. “I hate this place. A bit of wilderness my arse.”
“But how can we be followed and not hear it?” asked Bert. “It’s so quiet in here! Kiran, did you hear them?”
All eyes turned to Kiran. He shifted uncomfortably in the saddle.
“Shhh!” Bran raised a hand and everyone fell silent, searching around with disquietude.
The sound of falling leaves echoed in their ears… A branch cracked somewhere… A pair of wings fluttered… A tail swished.
“What?” they whispered.
“Nothing,” said Bran. “I’m just making a point.”
“That we have been… loud?” asked Bredan. “Distracted?”
“Yes. We assumed no one else would come this way and allowed irrational fears to distract us. It’s a forest, nothing more.”
“It’s eerie,” grumbled Ceri.
“It’s old,” retorted Kiran. “These oaks were acorns many generations before us.”
“But the road is smooth and clear,” pointed out Val. “Had anything been amiss, don’t you think the farmer would have warned us?”
“What about wild animals? Surely there must be.”
“This is not the mountains, Bert,” said Bran. “There are no dangerous animals.” He did not know that, of course, but neither the doctor, nor his son denied.
“That still doesn’t explain why we heard nothing,” insisted Ceri.
“We never listened for people,” replied the captain. “Enough with this, we are wasting time.”
Bredan glanced at Kiran, who averted his eyes. “What do we do now, Captain? Wait to see who they are?”
“We keep moving. This doesn’t change anything, except we’ll be more cautious. As we should have been.”
“Any idea how long before we get out of here?”
“Not too soon, I’m afraid,” said Val. “Our host said it’s a two days’ journey to the next village, most of it through the forest.”—There were a couple of growls—“But there is a glade, he said, where travellers spend the night.”
“Where? I’ve seen nothing but damn trees!” Ceri had lost his calm demeanour hours ago.
“What if we don’t find it before dark? I can’t even tell the time of day,” said Bert.
“Pull yourselves together!” snapped Bran. “If you can’t keep your heads now, what will you do in Fiodhin?”—The men swallowed their words—“Valan, how long, would you say, before we cannot see anymore?”
Val thought for a moment. With the sun behind heavy clouds and the sky mostly hidden by foliage, anyone with less experience would have been utterly confused. “Two, maybe three hours till sunset, but it’s just a guess. Mind you, forests are much darker than open fields. We must camp earlier than that.”
“Then let’s move. I’d rather not sleep among trees.” Bran threw his men a confident look, to which they nodded firmly, and glanced at Kiran before kicking his horse.
They took off at a quick trot, then sped to a canter, as if some invisible enemy were breathing down their necks. But shortly afterwards the sloped road forced them to slow down and let the horses catch their breath. They were tired and despondent. Not because they feared undesirable company—they were soldiers after all—but the talk had stirred all their other qualms and the thought of spending the night and another day there had ruined their mood again. Talking did not seem as good an idea as before. Instead their eyes searched around more often and the ears strained to catch any sound. The wind had died and, in the silence which enveloped them like a thick blanket, the flutter of unseen birds and the brittle sound of dry leaves reverberated in their heads, making their hearts stop. Yet they heard no hooves behind.
About two more hours in the ride, as their hopes of finding the camping place before dark were diminishing with each step, the forest thinned and then suddenly opened in front of them. On both sides the line of trees receded, encircling a large, almost flat glade—a meadow, at what seemed to be the top of the hill—only to meet on the other side and escort the road through, yet again, more forest. The sight of open sky dispelled a growing feeling of oppression, as if the canopy had been crushing them under its weight, and they burst into nervous laughter. The light was weaker than they were hoping, but no traces of sunset tinted the sky above their limited horizon, to give them an inkling about time. Nevertheless, they could see much better and the clouds appeared to be thinning.
Tall, yellow grass and other weeds and flowers past their prime covered the entire place, swaying in the gentle wind, which seemed trapped in a continuous movement between the forest’s tall walls. Inside the air had grown almost still, but the meadow was, literally, a breath of fresh air. Without towering trees to compete with and plenty of sun during the day, hawthorns and hazels trimmed the irregular edges, along with smaller shrubs throwing their slender branches towards light. Other shrubs were scattered about, thick and thorny and bearing small fruits. Trails of trodden grass crisscrossed the glade, the first clear evidence that wild animals wandered those hills, though it was hard to tell their kind.
A solitary oak stood in the middle and the road took a turn left, passing some twenty feet from it, then fell slightly to the right before disappearing in the dark of the forest on the other side. Grass was shorter there, as if many a creature had taken shelter, over the years, under the old tree. It would be their place for the night, for it offered a good view over the entire glade and cover, lest it rained again. And, to their immense surprise, there were twigs and bits of wood scattered around and traces of old fires on the road.
“Now you see that the farmer was right. Let’s set up camp before we run out of light,” said Bran, hopping off his horse.
They followed his example, stretching their stiffened legs. Still no hooves behind them. The glade was silent as a grave, save for the swishing sounds of swaying grass and the rustle of leaves. But now they were in the open and had proof the place was not forsaken. They tethered the horses to the shrubs along the road, leaving them to graze in peace. At the roots of the oak they spread the blankets and the cloaks on top of them—although the wind had dried the grass, underneath the ground was still damp.
All that was left was to look for water and firewood, but some of them were not too keen on going back into the forest. Kiran volunteered for the task, together with his father, and Bran joined them, leaving the other three to keep an eye on the camp. But instead of going back, they went to search the forest on the other side, both because they knew there was no water where they came from and because, if anyone was indeed following them, they would avoid meeting them unprepared.
“Well?” asked Bredan, more than half an hour later.
“Fates bless that man for gifting us with the bag of apples,” answered Val, treading a patch of grass and dropping his load. Despite the effort his breath was only slightly quicker than usual. “We found no water. I’m not surprised, though, we are sitting on a hilltop. Water would be much lower.”
“Saving our provisions was good thinking,” said Bran, appreciative. He was dragging a larger branch they had freed from a lightning struck tree.
“We took the horses to that puddle on the road,” said Bredan, “but I wonder if that will be enough.”
“There is another one a few feet from the edge,” said Kiran behind them, unloading his own harvest of firewood. “And towards morning the grass will be wet with dew. It will suffice to keep them going. It’s impossible not to come across a spring or a stream tomorrow.” The familiar activity had kept his mind busy and he was more self-possessed.
“The good news is the wood is reasonably dry,” said Val. “If we scratch off some of the bark and start a fire, it should burn. This fungus makes good tinder. It will spare mine.” He produced a large thing that looked nothing like a mushroom—shaped like a fan, thick and hard—which he had found inside a rotten log. “But we could use more wood.”
“I’ll bring that one we saw close to the road,” said Kiran and left in a hurry.
He had to because the light was fading, making it difficult to see in the forest. The others began to break and cut the wood into smaller pieces, sorting them according to Val’s instructions.
“But if anyone is following,” said Bert out of the blue, snapping a branch, “won’t fire just give us away?” So far nothing indicated that, but what if?
“It’s not as if we were hidden,” answered Bredan. “At least we can warm a little.”
Indeed, the fresh wind was chilly and, now their cloaks were not hanging on their shoulders anymore, their bodies were beginning to shiver. Fire would hold animals at distance, Val was about to say, but he changed his mind. No use in distressing them when he doubted they could keep it burning all night, anyway.
Kiran was returning, straining with another large branch, and Bran went to help him. Could you not have sent someone else?
“Any change?” asked Bran, making a slight chin motion towards the forest.
Kiran halted, surprised. “Oh, now you believe me?”
“I don’t want to take any chances.”
“A true captain.”
Bran almost regretted asking. After all nothing had happened and now they were setting camp in the open. If anyone else was there, looking for a place to sleep, they would join them under the old oak. But if they were hostile, they would try to take them by surprise. Which would fail now that he and his men were aware of the possibility. Whatever the case, soon they would find out if they worried for good reason or not. Why was he exposing himself to the brat’s impertinence?
On both sides the forest swallowed the road like a hungry, bottomless mouth. Twilight had drained the colours from the glade, but they could still see. The forest, on the other hand, was almost pitch black. Thump… thump… badump… The heartbeats were still there, in the dark, not very far from the edge. Not moving. The glade resonated with the sounds of blades chopping wood.
“They stopped,” said Kiran in a quiet voice. He glanced towards the captain. “You think it’s all just nonsense. Why bother asking?”
Bran took hold of the other side of the branch and pulled. “Your argument about pride was convincing.”
“I said self-esteem.”
“I know what you said.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence, both displeased with the other’s company. As long as he is alert, I’m fine with it, thought Kiran. We don’t have to like each other. He had better things to worry about. Such as why he kept sensing the horses, but not their riders.
It took a bit of effort to kindle the fire, but eventually they succeeded. They had picked a flat spot on the road, where the mud was harder, and Val had built a bed of short branches, to keep it away from moisture. Other pieces were placed around the bed like a wall, shielding it from the wind. That was also a good way to dry the wood, so they kept replacing that which they fed to the fire with new one. The thickest parts, which they could not cut, were used as stools and, shortly thereafter, they were seated around a small, but well burning campfire, collecting their thoughts. Not a moment too soon, for night had finally fallen over the land.
The clouds had grown thin, only a shredded veil, and a few stars were peeking through the holes. The moons were not up yet. The fire cast a bright light, making the glade look even darker, but the pleasant heat and the crackling of bark eased their minds, bringing to attention the emptiness in the stomachs.
They had not had lunch, only apples. With precious little water the dry food was hard to swallow, so the mushrooms they had picked up earlier in the day came in handy. No herbs or salt on them, just plain mushrooms spiked on dry twigs. Sweet and tender in flesh, with a subtle nutty flavour, they had a richness of taste that needed no addition, nor improvement. They ate slowly, wasting nothing, and talked about various subjects. And kept talking and telling stories long after they finished dinner, until sleep began to court their eyes and some were making visible efforts to keep their chins up.
Nothing bad happened and no one came to their camp.
Bran planned the watch, including everyone. Kiran said he had no trouble staying awake a few more hours. Bredan seconded him, so they were assigned with the first watch. Bran would follow, with Ceri, and Val with Bert towards morning. They would also have to feed the fire—just keep it alive, until they were out of wood.
The ghostly light of the waning moons barely illuminated the glade, giving it an otherworldly appearance. It was almost worse than before, with all those shadows crawling from the forest, trembling as if they were alive. Strange sounds sometimes broke the silence—an ominous hoot or a low churr, a flutter of wings, a twig snapping and other noises they could not account for. Just loud enough to startle them. Even the horses seemed uneasy, the way they raised their heads and blew every now and again. By contrast, the cool air indulged their smell with sweet, sleep inducing scents, when all their other senses were alert.
Bredan threw a piece of wood in the fire, sending a small swarm of sparks in the air. “You don’t seem too impressed with this place,” he said, wrapping himself in the cloak.
“Are you afraid?” asked Kiran with a playful side-glance, stretching his palms closer to the fire.
“A little daunted, perhaps. Are you not?”
“I like the woods.” Other things were daunting him.
“Hm… so do other creatures.”
“People are more dangerous than wild animals.” Between the bright fire and the dimly lit glade his eyes needed a few moments to adjust, but beyond the first line of trees the darkness was impenetrable. Thump… thump… badump... Fearful hearts throbbing in the shadows, and other, smaller but stouter, up in the canopy or prowling on the ground. “Animals are honest. They do what they do to live, nothing more.”
“Whereas people are deceitful.” He followed Kiran’s gaze. “Is that why you keep looking there? You still believe someone is watching?”
When Bran had broken the news, he had not mentioned him. “It’s possible.”
“Because you can sense that.”
That tone was difficult to interpret and Kiran stared at him, wondering. As always the handsome, friendly smile, a little less confident that evening, adorned Bredan’s face—I bet few resist that—but his eyes had that roguish glint Kiran had noticed a few times. A misleading man. He glanced over his shoulder—the others were snoring—then turned his gaze back to Bredan. “Does a captain share everything with his second?”
“No, but a very close friend may… Your little disclosure is puzzling him.”
“Ah! And he asked you to find out the truth.”
Bredan chuckled. “That is unfair. My opinion of you is very good.”
As opposed to your captain’s? “Yet you are very inquisitive.”
“People fascinate me.”
“Not their secrets?”
“That too, but it’s just curiosity.”
Perhaps Bredan was not entirely honest, but Kiran felt no malice or hidden intentions. He turned his eyes to the fire. “You would not believe it if I told you.”
“I think of myself as fairly open-minded. I’m willing to try.”
The fire crackled and popped. The reflection of the flames seemed to have set Kiran’s eyes ablaze. “Do you believe an animal can sense your emotions? Fear, for instance.”
“Some can. Horses do.”
“It’s the same.”
“You can sense fear?”
“I can sense the emotions of others. It’s a form of… sympathy.”
“Hm… I understand what you mean, I think… but you seem to possess more than that.” He poked the embers with a stick, watching the transient splendour of the sparks. “Did you ever sense ours?”
Kiran tossed another wood in the fire. “Some of them.”
Hot tongues crept along the fresh wood, licking the cracked bark with the eagerness of a hungry pet.
“You could have given Bran this answer, you know?”
“Because it sounds better than a gift?”
Bredan laughed softly. “Less vague, I suppose. So, you sensed the emotions of the people following us?”
“Of their horses.”
“…You sensed horses, not people.”
“Horses don’t wander the roads without riders.”
“True. Maybe they somehow hid their emotions,” said Bredan, half joking, “just to trick you.”
“Maybe—” Kiran froze. Merciful Fates! That was why he only sensed their horses, because the men had hidden their emotions. How come he had not realized that sooner? The implication was horrifying: they were hiding from him. They were no highway robbers, they were looking for him. His heart sunk.
A gust of wind shook the branches of the old tree and the leaves rustled violently. Another twig snapped. Danan raised his head and snorted. Sylph answered. Kiran turned to look over his shoulder. A gloved hand met his face, covering his mouth and nose with a cloth. It had a distinct, pungent, slightly medicinal scent. Lorain oil! He grabbed the hand, trying to pull it away, but a sudden feebleness made the attempt useless. His mind was quickly fading. There was a low grunt to his right, followed by a thud as Bredan fell to the ground. Too late, screamed his mind, just before he slipped out of consciousness. Then all was black.