Nights of Fire
Part Three – The Ancient Forest
The scintillating display that blazed across the sky continued late on into the night, smothered as clouds once more began rolling in. Dawn arrived with a light snow falling, a dusting of it settling upon the hills.
They set out again, headed onwards through the lonely hills. Even there were but few indications of wild animals to keep them company. They had left behind all signs of man and civilisation some time before, heading deeper into the northern wilds that were seldom visited.
In time they began to descend from the desolate hills, having at last made their way along trails that twisted through them. Their path led them down towards the forest that grew thick and dark. It was a region of towering trees whose gnarled branches tangled together and beneath whose canopy was gathered a deep and damp gloom. The first few trees littered the last slopes that they made their cautious way down. They grew more profuse the lower they got, until finally they were within the forest itself, the hills behind them and lost to sight through the trees.
Strange noises rattled through the foliage. The forest was a tangle of fallen trees and boulders, with thick shrubs growing everywhere and clinging mosses blanketing everything; trees, boulders, roots and fallen logs alike. A constant drip of water from branches above echoed about as it fell onto a floor of half decayed leaves. The interior of the forest was sheltered from the wing though, and the falling snow failed to penetrate the dense canopy. Out of the wind and snow it was maybe a touch warmer, but also darker.
“Not the most hospitable of environs,” Lakach noted dryly.
“They say that it is an abode of spirits.” The speaker was a tall woman, dark of hair and pale of eye. Nhaqosa recalled that Alianore had briefly recounted having been born in the north, before she had been taken as a slave and forced to fight as a gladiator. “Those who come here are taken by the spirits of the earth and the trees, and are never heard of again.”
“Seems the type of thing that you would expect to hear about a place like this,” Lakach noted, stroking his moustache.
“You will see.”
“Someone does live here,” Abasan noted. “Or at least they used to.”
There was a stirring from the band, an intensifying of alertness as hands strayed to the hilts of weapons and eyes sharpened, searching out for trouble.
“What makes you say that?” Nhaqosa asked of the man, moving over to join him, quiet despite the bulk. Abasan pointed away into the gloom of the ancient forest, off to the side of the route they were taking. Slightly up a slope, between two fallen trees, there stood a moss covered rock that at first glance seemed merely oddly shaped, but after a closer inspection it became apparent that it was in the shape of a crudely carved bird.
Nhaqosa half walked, half scrambled up the slope to where it sat, to get a better a look at it. He scraped away at the moss growing thick upon it to allow himself a chance to study it in more detail. It was worn by weather and age, and yet despite its crude appearance, it had not been carved by untrained hands. About its rough façade it held a hidden beauty within, hinted at within being implicitly shown. The type of bird itself could not be identified, for there were no obvious features to give clues to that.
“It is meant to mean anything, boss?” Lakach asked, pulling at the corners of his moustache. It was a reflexive action when he was nervous, a trait he barely noticed doing.
“Hard to say,” the big minotaur replied. “It could be a boundary marker, a ward, or simply a piece of artwork.”
“If we bump into those responsible, remind me to ask.”
Nhaqosa chuckled as he led them off again, deeper into the forest, plunging into the darkening gloom.
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