2. The Dark Forest
A cry like thunder erupted from the coal black steed as it reared back onto its hind legs. Its rider, clad in shining green armor, fixed him with a menacing stare through the narrow eye slit in his gilded helm. The gargantuan knight loosed a guttural snarl and lowered his lance, pointing it directly at the young wanderer’s heart. Quaking in fear, he tumbled backward away from the charger as it kicked at the dirt. The knight loosed a sinister laugh.
“Just a boy,” he growled, his voice heavy with disdain. “Lord Buxton must have been sick or drunk to let a whelp like you put ‘im down. No matter, you’ve come up against a real man now, Lott. Your debt is settled today.”
The young man shuffled frantically away from the knight until he stubled to the ground. Over the years, he had learned to suppress his anguish and fear, but at once, it all came rushing back. He had run so far, but it seemed he could never outrun his debt. The day would inevitably come when he would have to pay back what he owed in his own blood, but it need not be today. He swallowed his fear and reached for his sword where it lay in the grass. The knight’s spurs flashed against the black of the horse’s flanks and it surged forward like a bolt from a crossbow. The young man climbed to his feet and raised his sword. Then, pausing a moment to picture his own death, he smiled…
The traveler’s eyes snapped open to reveal a hazy, unfamiliar world. An eerie presence hung in the air and pressed in around him until his breathing became labored. Shadows danced across the snow, blurred by the sleep still clinging to his eyes. A dark horseman on a black steed lurched up before him. He fumbled for his sword and lashed out at his attacker. An earsplitting cry wrenched him back into reality. The haze cleared and the wasteland congealed back into focus. The black steed became the chestnut brown horse. The traveler’s stomach turned at the sight of the cut he had made across the horse’s side. It was shallow, but he cursed himself just the same and rushed over to the animal apologizing, even though he knew the horse had no idea what was happening. Much to his surprise, however, the horse replied with a bregrudging nod.
After binding the creature’s wound, he sat down by his knapsack and gazed up into the sky. The black clouds had cleared once the traveler left the village, drawing back the mask that shrouded night and day. Calmed by the gentle warmth of the sun, he turned his thoughts to food. Opening his sack, he rifled around in search of something to eat and was rewarded with a loaf of bread and a canteen of water. Cold bread and warm water would have seemed less than appetizing had it not been so long since he had last eaten. The traveler wondered if perhaps different rations might prevent any further nightmares. However, as he had no other choice in fare, he put the idea from his mind for the time being. His options limited, he decided avoiding sleep was the best way to avoid dreams.
He paused for a moment, food hanging out of his mouth, and tried to remember what exactly he had dreamed. The dream was quite terrifying, he recalled that much. However, try as he may, he could not remember anything specific. At any rate, he was not interested in reliving the terror. Turning to his horse, he let slip a facetious remark:
“If it’s all the same to you, I think we’ll be moving out now.” The traveler allowed himself a light-hearted chuckle, but his laughter was cut short when the horse shrugged and stood up. The traveler gaped for a moment, the horse’s reaction leaving him befuddled. Deeply disconcerted, he resolved to avoid any further such moments by keeping the rest of his thoughts to himself. He gave the horse a suspicious look which was returned with an unconcerned grunt. Side by side, the companions plodded on Northward.
It made sense to the traveler that if the old man expected him to reach the woods in four days, and he traveled both day and night, he would make it there in only two. However, three days passed with no sign of the woods of which the old man spoke. The traveler was fairly certain he was headed in the right direction, and unless his horse was intentionally letting him go astray, which he wouldn’t put past it, he should have arrived at his destination. He was beginning to wonder if it had been unwise to trust a strange man he met in an empty town, but he seemed to remember something about remaining brave in the face of uncertainty. So far it seemed the only danger was the night’s chill. He pulled his cloak tight and soldiered on toward the horizon.
As dawn broke on the fourth day, he began to pass wiry shrubs and bushes. The thinning snows gave way to a wide grassy field dotted with flowers, short greening trees and other auspicious signs of life. Soon, the trees began to grow thicker until he found himself in the midst of a sparsely wooded forest. Four days, almost exactly, he thought, as if the old man knew I would not sleep.
“Curious,” he said out loud. The horse turned to him and shook its head with an irritated growl. “What is the problem with you? You have quite the attitude and I see no justification for it. The old man put you in my service and that means I am your master.” At this the horse bucked backwards with an indignant snort. “Defiant are we?” the traveler asked, moving toward it with quick, bold strides.
“Perhaps I should climb on your back and show you the correct place for creatures of lesser intelligence.” This statement seemed to amuse the horse. Throwing its head back, it erupted in a jovial whicker. Undaunted, the traveler stepped forward to grab the bridle and mount. Shuffling sideways, the horse kicked its front feet forward, narrowly missing the traveler’s head. He lurched back in surprise and stumbled over his own foot, hitting the ground hard. Scrambling back to his feet, he dusted himself off and sighed.
“It would seem that I have not yet earned your respect. I guess I haven’t quite done anything deserving of it so far. I am talking to a horse after all,” he said with a grin. Unamused, the horse turned abruptly and continued north through the trees.
An hour later, their expedition came to a sudden halt. The trees had grown thicker as they traveled until they arrived at a line so closely knit that the traveler could find no way through. Broad, gnarled tree trunks wound together into a veritable wall of foliage. Even if he could climb through, there would be no way for the horse to pass. The young man resolved to walk the tree line until he found a passage inside. He looked east, then west, then leaned on a tree and sighed.
“Any ideas?” he said, turning to the horse. It looked him in the eye for a moment and then gestured with its head to the right.
“Better than any ideas I had.” Pushing himself from the tree, he adjusted his cloak and turned to the east. After about three hours of wandering along the tree line, they came to a wide arch formed by two tall trees whose branches tangled high above them. Running from the arch into the woods was a small dirt path, too narrow for the traveler and his horse to walk side by side. Instead, he took its reins and led it in behind him, leaving the grassy fields and snowy expanses of the south behind him.
At the outset, the sun shone through the tree tops lighting their way. But as the path began to wind and twist, the canopy grew thicker and the light dimmed. The traveler began to sweat despite the chill beneath the trees. It could be no later than mid afternoon and already the light had dwindled to a kind of twilight. He soon found himself stumbling over roots and rocks as he tried to follow the ever-fading path. After about an hour of half-blind meandering, the traveler decided to stop for the night in the hopes that in the morning the sun might shine at a more favorable angle and allow him to see the path. He took two steps into the trees and sat down on what he desperately hoped was a large flat boulder. The horse was shrouded in shadow but for its glowing orange eyes. All the same, he could sense the creature’s disapproval. The rumbling growl that cut through the darkness proved him correct. The beast’s dissatisfaction with his choice of camping area would have to go unheeded, he decided. Though it occurred to the traveler that his horse would very likely know this land far better than he did, he had had enough of the attitude he was receiving and deemed it necessary to remind it who was the human and who was the beast of burden.
The traveler took off his haversack and began to sift through his provisions. Another chunk of hard bread and a few mouthfuls of water would have to suffice. The old man seemed to care little for his well being and the young traveler feared he might soon become malnourished. His current fares, while sufficient for his current purposes, left his sense of taste somewhat wanting. As he chewed, he tried to remember banquets past and the lush flavors of his youth. Try as he may, however, nothing came to him. In his mind he could almost picture a plate of food, something warm and steaming, but somehow the tastes escaped him and left him with nothing but the flavor of stale bread.
The traveler sighed and washed down a doughy lump with a swig of cold water. Try as he may, he could find nothing to dull the haplessness of his situation. He lay back on the flat stone and surrendered to his unalterable condition. Then, like a sudden squall descending without notice on a tiny fishing boat, the traveler’s four days without rest caught up with him and plunged him into the darkness of sleep. As he slipped away, a light wind blew through the trees. The horse shivered, sensing the oncoming cold. He too was tired, but he knew that one should never let one’s guard down in the Great Forest of Shadows. His fiery eyes blazed into the night, always watching for what he knew was never far off.
The traveler bolted upright out of one haunted darkness and into another. Soaked in cold sweat, he stumbled to his knees and listened to the strange sounds that echoed through the woods. The wind howled through the trees creating an unnatural moan. At first, he thought his lack of sleep had left him delirious. Shadows danced between the trees as the wind howled like a hungry wolf. The hair on his neck rose to attention and he knew in a moment this was something more than the idle tricks of a weary mind. Above the groaning of the trees, a bloodcurdling cry tore through the darkness. The traveler turned to his horse in a panic. The creature’s fiery eyes stared back at him through the gloom with subtle tremble that betrayed a genuine fright. The cry repeated, this time much closer, and a realization struck him hard: they were being hunted.
The traveler rooted around in the darkness for his sword, terror driving him wild as he scrambled around on the forest floor. His search was fruitless. He had somehow lost his only defense against whatever was approaching. Tears sprang from his eyes as he fell to the ground in a miserable heap. His horse, calm in this moment of desperation gave a loud cry and kicked the traveler, rolling him on his back and jolting him back to reality. Returning to his senses, the traveler reached to his side and drew the sword that had been hanging from his waist the entire time. As he pulled the weapon from its scabbard, the blade caught every trace of light and reflected it into the surrounding forest.
The sudden illumination blinded him for an instant before revealing a creature more terrifying than he could ever imagine. It stood on two legs, like a man, but therein laid the only resemblance. The creature had the massive, powerful body of a bear with matted silver fur. Its face was flat but for its black bulbous eyes and sharp incisors stuck out from between its closed lips. The beast had long powerful arms, each ending in five razor sharp claws. Long, sharp spikes parted the fur on the beast’s arms and torso. It loosed a guttural moan and reached out as if to envelop the traveler in a deadly embrace. It reeled for a moment, stunned by the sudden glare of the sword. Not willing to wait for the creature to recover, the young man leapt forward and plunged his sword into what he hoped was the creature’s heart. It fell backwards into the brush with a soft thud. As it lay dying, it let out a shrill cry that echoed throughout the forest with a deafening blast. Moments later, the cry was answered by a dozen other calls far off in the darkness.
Terror gripped the traveler. He grabbed his pack and the horse’s reins and took off running down the path. Using the gleam of his sword to light the way, they ran headlong into the gloom, dodging roots and low hanging branches.
As they ran, the dirt path began to fade. Grass sprang up under his feet and the underbrush closed in around them. Soon, the path disappeared entirely. The traveler cursed his ill fortune and swept his sword side to side in search of a new trail. Far off, but closer than before, another shrill cry tore through the woods. The traveler sheathed his weapon, extinguishing its light for fear it might betray them.
“Wouldn’t want anything to give away our location,” he said to the horse. The creature stared back at him, two orange orbs glowing in the darkness.
“Perhaps you should close your eyes.” The horse merely glared back, its gaze unwavering. The traveler wrapped his cloak around himself until it shrouded his entire body and curled into a ball in the underbrush. The horse snorted its disapproval but he paid it no heed. His exhaustion caught up with him in a wave of anguish springing on him more ferociously than the terrible creature he had just faced.
“It isn’t fair,” he whispered to the darkness as tears welled in his eyes. “What have I done that this madness should befall me? This shouldn’t be happening to…” The horse whickered and turned him on his back with a swift kick. A picture flashed through his mind of the silver creatures tearing him apart while he cried out for fairness. Is that what you want? he thought.
“No…no that’s not what I want at all.” Pushing himself to his feet, he unsheathed his sword with a primal howl. The sudden bright light shot a jolt of pain through his eyes and he staggered backward. An anguished cry to his left told him that he was not the only victim. His eyes adjusted to find three of the silver creatures standing close by, all still reeling from the sudden flash of light. Mustering what valor he possessed, the traveler leapt towards the closest creature and lashed out with his sword. He was rewarded with a cry of pain and wheeled around to where he hoped the second creature still stood. His sword struck something soft and warm liquid splattered onto his hands. Skipping backward, he took quick stock of the situation, his eyes now fully adjusted. To his right, one creature stood bent forward, clutching a gash across its midsection. Not far from it, another crumpled to the forest floor, a sickening sound bubbling up from its opened throat.
The third creature stood just a few steps away and was bigger than the others by a quarter. Undaunted by the traveler’s lucky blows it bellowed a chilling cry and hurtled full speed toward him. As it charged, its eyes met the travelers and froze him with a cold hatred. The creature’s eyes were black and dead, like two bottomless pools rising up to swallow him.
For a moment, he stood transfixed. The creature plunged towards him on all fours, spikes bristling and fur glistening in the low light. Its claws gripped the earth as it charged toward him. Crouching down onto its hind legs, it launched itself at the young wanderer. Its mouth opened to reveal several rows of pointed yellow teeth. The sickening smell of rotting meet wafted before it and shook the traveler from his trance. Instinct overtook him at the last moment and he fell to the side, narrowly avoiding the attack. The putrid stink hung in the air, choking the traveler as he tried to catch his breath. The creature turned to face him with a hiss and reared back on its hind legs.
Adrenaline surged through his veins and the world narrowed, leaving just him and the creature. The traveler sprang up and swung his sword in an arch toward the beast. It lifted its arm and blocked the blow effortlessly with a spiked elbow and lashed out at him with the other hand. He fell to one knee, dodging the creature’s claws by a hair’s breath and jabbing at its unprotected abdomen. It hopped backwards and parried his thrust with its claws. Throwing back its head, it cried out and charged him again. Fumbling around in the underbrush, the traveler found a thick branch and flung it at the creature, striking it in the stomach. Jumping to his feet, he swung his sword at its face and managed to clip the creature’s nose. Enraged, it jumped forward and slashed the traveler, opening the flesh on his forehead. Hot blood spurted from the wound, stinging his eyes as it ran down his face. Blinded by his own blood, he swung his sword in a mindless fury. More blood splashed across his face, but this time not his own. He heard the creature cry out in agony as his blade sunk into its torso.
Just like that, it was over. The creature fell to the ground with a thud and the traveler dropped to his knees. He knelt in the underbrush for some time, shaking violently, the blood still running down his face as he tried to wipe it away.
“I-I just killed those things,” he whispered to no one. The horse grunted nearby and kicked at the ground.
“Did you see what I did? How I moved?” the young traveler continued, his voice rich with wonder. The horse whickered and turned away, gazing off into the darkness. Still amazed at what he had done, the traveler sat back against a mossy tree and let down his sword. Adrenaline subsided and an uneasy peace took its place. The path had vanished entirely and there was no telling how many more of the creatures still lurked in the darkness. He wiped the last of the blood from his eyes with the tail of his cloak and felt the cut on his forehead. It was not as bad as he had first thought, but blood still seeped from the wound. Tearing a strand from his cloak, he made a bandage and tied it around his head just tight enough to slow the flow. Dazed from the battle, the traveler leaned back against a tree and closed his eyes, happy for just a moment’s respite.
A soft rustle from the bushes brought his moment of calm to a quick conclusion. The traveler jumped to his feet and swept his sword in a circle, casting its glow into the brush as he set himself for the coming attack. Instead, much to his surprise, he saw no grotesque creatures, nor did he hear their earsplitting cry. He only heard a quiet voice, whispering to him from the dark.
“Come with me, good traveler.” Shocked, he backed away from the voice.
“W-who are you?” The traveler looked high and low for the source of the voice, but it might as well have come out of thin air. He began to back away from it when a cry went up in the woods behind him.
“We must not delay. Two score more Furhärads pursue you. The time for bravery has ended. Prudence now takes the forefront.” The brush rustled again and the traveler heard the soft patter of feet hurrying off through the woods. A moment later, he heard the clapping of the horse galloping after them. Stunned by this sudden abandonment, he froze, unsure whether or not to trust this invisible stranger. The gravity of the moment struck him and gave him pause. As far as he could remember, he had never killed anything before. Now the dark blood of these Furhärads, as the voice called them, dripped off his sword blade like a mountain spring trickling onto the forest floor. Everything had happen so quickly, he had not had time to think. He was caught in the middle of a dark forest in which he did not belong being asked to trust the words of a man he did not know. And now a new voice added its will to the mix. The fog of fatigue made it all too much for him to handle.
All feelings other than fear fled when the cries of a dozen furious Furhärads joined in one terrible chorus. His reservations forgotten for the time being, he turned from the cries and ran headlong after the horse and the strange voice. The forest assailed him viciously as he tried to keep up with the beating of hoofs ahead. Trees leaned in to slash at him and roots grasped his ankles as he hurried through the woods, exhaustion weighing on his every step.
They had run for what felt like several hours when a tiny dot of light pierced the darkness. At first, the traveler thought the light was some vision born of his own desperation and fatigue. However, as they ran on, the light began to grow. Soon beams of sunlight broke through the tree tops and he could see the plain outlines of trees, the shapes of bushes, and the back of the horse. The last of these was not the most pleasant, but it did make following a bit easier. Despite the growing light, he still could not see whatever owned the voice that had called him to follow.
Behind him in the black of the forest, the cries had subsided. The forest grew thinner, and before long the full light of day shone down on them. When the horse finally came to a halt, the traveler searched for his new guide. Much to his distress, he could see no man before him. Puzzled, he began to fear that the voice had led him astray. His pulse quickened as he stretched his gaze as far into the distance as he could. He turned to the horse and his eyes narrowed.
“What have you done? Why would you think running off after a strange voice was a good idea?” The horse glared at him and gestured toward the ground by his feet. The traveler looked down and jumped back in shock.
“My apologies for being short with you before, but the situation was dire.” The traveler’s jaw dropped in disbelief. For a human like himself to say this would have come as no surprise. However, the creature that stood before him did so on four legs and was covered in fur. It had the appearance of a wolf, but was slightly smaller than what one would normally find in the wild. Its hair was black on top, but faded into a light tan color around its muzzle, turning to white as it approached the underbelly.
“I am taking you to the land of the Drak-tarno. The land of my people. You will be safe there.” The creature waited patiently for his reply, but the traveler was dumbfounded. He searched his mind for some precedent to aid in his assessment of this development, but found nothing. Nothing he could think of told him for certain that this creature should not be talking to him, but its vocalizations felt out of place just the same.
“Very well,” it continued. “I expect you must be weary from your travels. Be that as it may, this is not a safe place to rest. It would be best if I brought you before our king. No doubt he will want to meet you, and I am quite certain you do not wish to go back the other way,” it said, nodding towards the darkened forest behind them. With that, the little wolf turned and ran on through the bushes. Satisfied that this creature meant him no harm, though still confounded by its ability to speak, he hurried after it, the horse trotting at his side.