tagMind ControlHeart of the Forest

Heart of the Forest

byImperatorMentus©

They say no army has ever set foot beneath the Shadeweald's impenetrable canopy. That spirits and demons of the old world hid amongst its shadows, filled with malice towards those who walked beneath the sun. Not to mention the wailing ghosts of those who ignored the warnings of wiser men. What army would ever allow their commanders to risk even a single night in such a dark, uninviting place. Better to take the longer road, and for once the weary soldiers would not begrudge the extra miles.

Some storytellers, the most honest, perhaps, will admit that the empire of old may have dared it. Many centuries ago, before it crumbled to ruin and dust. So said the tales, at any rate. But no matter. What did ancient bravado mean to the lesser people living alongside its ruins. What the empire had once dared meant little to the lesser men following in its wake.

It was, perhaps, these very rumors that drove the raiders into forest. Surely, they thought, even the most relentless pursuer would blanch at following them.

They thought wrong.

Twenty some mounted soldiers, it must be admitted, do not make an army. But when you are only three afoot, twenty armed horsemen is as bad as a thousand.

This should have been a quick snatch and grab, as the raiders' people were accustomed. The border was long and undermanned. A small force could easily get in and take what they wanted before anyone noticed. By the time anyone even started to track them, they should have been halfway back to home and safety.

Luck had not been on their side, though the trip had started promising enough. Young and inexperienced, the trio had been more than eager to bring back a good take. Something big. Something that would make their fortunes and win the interest of the village girls. When they discovered a richly appointed lodge nestled deep in the woods, they each said a small prayer of thanksgiving to the great spirit of daring for blessing their hunt.

The few terrified servants had run screaming at the sight of the sight of three large men, with their savage looking axes and long wild hair drawn back in a warrior's knot.

A mistake, leaving witnesses, much less allowing them to escape. Had there been more than three, they might have considered taking some back as captives. The servants had been comely enough, to be sure. But there were only the three, and letting them run had seemed a minor detail at the time. Besides, the obvious terror gratified the young men's egos. It let them feel fierce and grown without the effort and unpleasantness of actually using the weapons they had spent their youth learning. Anyways, with the servants gone, the house was ripe for plundering.

Three bulging sacks stuffed with gold and silver should be more than enough to justify straying from the main party. Precious metals would solve a lot of problems, come to think of it, including the frustrations any young man experiences while trying to court. Especially one who is untried and unblooded. Things would change when they got back. Even once the communal share was handed out, each of the boys would be more than enough left over to be generous. Their leader's thoughts had already turned towards a fair freckled face, and the smooth bosom below it. A gold necklace, perhaps, would win enough favor for him to discover whether the freckles continued down under her clothing.

He would find out, he'd been certain, once they made it home.

If they made it home.

The boys had not counted on Marshal Rosalyn Emory, or her hand picked unit of border scouts. While the rest of her forces drove off the larger raiding party, she dedicated herself to tracking down the group who had dared raid the Duke of Ambrose's newest hunting lodge.

It was the principle of the thing, she told herself. What would people think if they allowed raiders to attack with impunity? What could possibly be more brazen than stealing from the greatest, most noble man in the entire kingdom? Why, if they could attack him, those wretches would dare anything.

It was not to be permitted, and soon she would create an example of what happens when you crossed your betters.

There was little time to waste. The fugitives were almost past the border by the time she set out, but the river was wide and there were few places where a group could safely pass without a boat. She may not have been able to catch them before they slipped across, but she could at least cut them off from their kinsmen, not to mention an easy route home.

Marshal Emory had rarely been ranged far into the wildlands, and never with so few behind her, but her pursuit was relentless. Chasing their quarry, the group passed through half a dozen of the fractured, quarrelsome tribes without allowing time for even the briefest of challenges. It was frightening, daring the wildlands with only a small scout patrol, but exhilarating nonetheless. A heady mix of danger, righteousness, and excitement.

Her group was the pride of her border guards. A hand picked unit with some of the best scouts and skirmishers the kingdom had to offer. Herself aside, it was still a mixed group, with over half the horses carrying female riders. It was something she'd seen over and over again. Put a girl on a horse, and many of the body's limitations were negated. There was nobody Rosalyn would rather be with, save for her patron, Lord William Ambrose. But of course, he was busy at court, and in any case they dared not risk him past the border.

They were nearing the end of their first day in the saddle when her second found the first discarded sacks. The young woman had gathered up the scattered contents, and brought it to her captain.

If anything, it was surprising that the goods had not been abandoned sooner. In fact, Rosalyn had considered splitting off a couple riders to look for the stolen items, just in case they had been missed during the pursuit.

"Amateurs," said the fiery haired lieutenant. Even in the fading light, her lips were red as the bright hair currently tied back beneath the soldier's helm. Was that natural, or had she sought an alchemist to redden them more permanently. Rosalyn licked her lips, wondering if she would look more appealing after such a treatment. Something to seek out later, perhaps.

"They'd have to be," Rosayln said, "or they'd have known to leave His Lordship's belongings in peace."

Kira, her second, nodded immediately, every bit as incensed as she was. Like many of Rosalyn's other officers, this one had been personally handpicked by Lord William. Though only a middling rider amongst this elite company, her devotion to duty was unquestionable, and Rosalyn was glad to have her. Especially on the longer patrols, where the girl's sleek curves and tight flesh helped warm many an otherwise lonely night.

Despite their inexperience, the raiders were on familiar ground once they passed the river, and made good time despite being on foot. Even so, their pursuers were mounted, and this chase was nearing its end. Then the tracks did the unthinkable, and veered into the trees.

At first they had thought it a ruse. A quick foray along the edges to throw off pursuit. But soon it became clear that the raiders had fled deeper into the woods.

The men grumbled, but Rosalyn trusted them to follow orders. It helped that most of the unit had met their patron in person. They understood how important it was not to let him down. The group may not have been an army, but for the first time in recorded history her kingdom's soldiers stepped under those legend shrouded branches.

From the first, it was clear they had stepped beyond their long familiar world, into one that defied all expectations. Colors, smells, sounds, nothing was like any forest they had ever seen. Even the blackest parts of the primordial Direwood were still normal, but not here.

Birds cried out as they rode past, their shrill calls echoing amongst the trees. At least, Rosalyn hoped they were birds. Their calls were like nothing she had ever heard, and she saw nothing amongst the branches.

Worse, even the plants moved.

One of their scouts had stopped for a closer look at the trail, when a flowery vine began to uncurl from its tree trunk embrace. Slowly, it began to reach for her. The bright crimson flower, which had so recently looked up at the narrow streams of sunlight piercing the canopy overhead, began a languorous turn towards the dismounted rider. It was decided, after that point, that perhaps the tracks didn't have to be quite so closely examined.

A slow hour's ride after that, they passed their first creek. With waterskins running low after their single minded pursuit, a few of the riders stopped to refill.

As Rosalyn knelt to fill her own waterskin, her first warning was the sound. Not the normal, expected burble you'd expect to hear from a stream. No splashing against the shallow rocks. No, what she heard was a clinking, a tinkling. Metallic, except not, with an almost musical quality to it. A song just tantalizingly out of earshot.

She held up a hand, telling the rest of the riders to hold while she bent to investigate further. As she drew closer to the water, the scent was more obvious. Subtle, a mix of honey and incense. Inviting, compelling almost, but she did not trust it. Water should not smell like that. They could make do, Rosalyn decided, until they were were out of the woods.

Deeper into the forest, the riders realized that tracking their quarries would be no easy task. Not that the fugitives had taken any great pains to conceal themselves, but rather as though the forest itself was working to mislead them. The path would meander, circling and winding, only to vanish and reappear elsewhere. As even the thin light that pierced the leaves above began to fade, and they were forced to consider a night spent in the forest, even Rosalyn began to doubt their mission.

That was when the blue men appeared.

There was no warning, no sound. Just a face, where a moment earlier there had been only forest. There was a bow in his hand. Short, but he was standing only a couple dozen paces away. Maybe her armor would turn the long, barbed arrow. Maybe. Rosalyn didn't feel like risking it.

Others began emerging, encircling the band. That decided the issue. Releasing a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, her hand unclenched from the half drawn sword at her waist. She raised her palms in the air, holding them outwards to show that there was no ill intended.

Old campfire stories from years past flashed through her head. Tales of spooks and ghosts, told by amused soldiers to their indulgent commander's young daughter. The forest snatcher, with fangs as tall as a child, mouth dripping the blood of its last victim. A score of different creatures from as many different tales, each spawned from "the darkest depths of Shadeweald's heart". The crying woman, the five handed ghost, and of course, the story of the careless girl who wandered too far and was snatched away by the pizkies.

It wasn't hard to believe those stories, seeing that hairless, blue face. Not only was his scalp bare, but eyebrows as well, with not the slightest trace of a beard. Though the forest's shadow cloaked his face, she could tell that his eyes were quick and sharp. The sort that saw much and missed little. With a careful motion of her hand, she commanded her group to stand down. The blue men could have loosed their arrows long ago. That they hadn't done so already was a good sign. Probably.

The man spoke, a rush of fluid, melodic syllables. She didn't understand so much as a single word.

"I'm sorry, I don't-"

He tried again. It took two more tries before they found a common tongue. A halting, border dialect, barely comprehensible beneath his thick accent.

"Weapons down," he said, stumbling over the words. "Off horse. You walk. Walk now."

"Walk where?" she asked.

"Come now. Walk. Guests. You guests."

She took a long, pointed look at the arrows.

"Guests now," he insisted, "Come."

They weren't shooting yet. That was a good thing. Those arrows did look quite sharp, and the men weren't offering much room for argument.

"What happened to my..." it took her a moment to remember the word. "scouts. What happened to my scouts."

There had, of course, been outriders. They should have prevented the larger group from being encircled, or at least provided a warning. If they hadn't...

It took the man a few seconds to puzzle over her words, after which he nodded with an expression of cheerful indifference.

"Also guests."

Wonderful. It looks like they were all about to become guests. Rosalyn couldn't see any other alternative. At least not right then.

Their weapons were quickly stripped away, as gently as one could hope for with arrows trained upon you. Their hands were bound with ropes of soft fiber that almost reminded her of the courtly silk she had grown so fond of. Starting with Rosalyn, their hands were tied behind them. Though tight, and hardly comfortable, the knots were not painful either. A few surreptitious attempts had proven that the bindings would not be easily slipped.

When they stepped out of the shadows to bind the captives, Rosalyn learned that she had been wrong about two things. Their captors were not, in fact blue. Instead, their faces were covered by a thick coat of blue paint. As the pigment reached down to their bare chests, it split off, diverging into lines and patterns that trailed over the rest of the body. Some were almost elegant in their angular simplicity, while the most complex were a dizzying maze of lines within lines. She wondered how they could possibly keep such fine tracework intact while sneaking through the forest, when it was so hard for her own cosmetics to last a single night at court. An incongruous thought, out of place even as it flashed through her mind.

It was these patterns, or rather the bare chests they covered, which informed her of the second mistake. Their captors were not, in fact, all men. Some of the blue painted figures that stepped out from the shade were clearly, definitely women. Every bit as bald headed and bare chested as the men.

They tended towards lean and lithe, with not a one of them that could quite be called "buxom". At least not by the fashions at court this season. Nonetheless, their paint and posture did little to hide their femininity. Quite the opposite, in fact, with many of them bearing spiraled tracings that highlighted and enhanced their bosom.

It wasn't until the group was quite disarmed, with their hands safely bound, that the captors brought out the second set of ropes. The ones meant for their necks. Rosalyn protested, but what could she do? No weapons, no hands, and even if the bows were put away, they were still within reach.

"Guests," the leader repeated with a smile, then took her rope in hand and began leading her deeper into the forest. She had little choice but to follow.

For some reason, it reminded her of his lordship, the duke.

As drums beat out a slow, pulsing rhythm, Rosalyn stared across the firelit circle, taking in the small, elderly man who was facing her. Unlike those who had ambushed her, he had a full head of hair. White with age, though head and beard were dyed with long streaks of blue, presumably the same paint as the warriors. His face was painted in lines and patterns reminiscent of the warriors' body paint, rather than a full covering. Unlike the warriors, he was clothed above the waist, wearing a long, loose robe. Also white with blue patterns.

The colors meant something. That much was obvious, though it wasn't clear what. The woman sitting at the chief's left, for example, wore green. In the firelight, the paint almost reflected onto her skin and hair, giving them a distinct greenish hue. She said very little, staring off as though watching something none of the others could see. Perhaps she was. This was the Shadeweald, after all. Rosalyn couldn't have even begun to guess her age, and would have believed the women was twenty no less than she would have believed an answer of eighty. There was a certain... presence to her. Something indefinable that told Rosayln that there was more to this woman than the mere shell of a body sitting in front of her.

But then the woman turned and smiled, and for one brief moment she didn't seem quite so inhuman after all.

The drummers wore green paint as well, though little else. Not even the brief lower coverings of the warriors. Their patterns were sparse and bare, without the woman's ornate tracery, but were every bit as flowing. Drawn in a way almost reminiscent of creeping, growing plantlife. So did the woman's, come to think of it. But more sturdy, solid. A tall tree reaching towards the sun, where the others were mere vines grasping at the surface.

Those drums had worried Rosalyn. They still did. They had seen things in the forest, things whose attention Rosalyn would not care to draw. Even with their "guides" (involuntary though they had been), the group hadn't been completely safe.

They'd been perhaps an hour's walk from the ambush, following a winding trail that only the painted men could really see, when their captors halted. She didn't even have time to speak before she was being pulled down to the ground. She gasped, straining against the rope around her throat, but before she could protest, it was there.

A moment earlier, it had just been them. A small group of scouts on their way to an uncertain fate, but well enough for the moment. Then she... heard something, felt it. Or both. Or neither. It was simply there.

Impossibly large, menacing with unseen power. Still hidden, invisible in the forest's unpierceable depths, but of such terrible awe and might that it could scarcely be believed even as it was witnessed.

Rosalynn no longer considered making any sound. Couldn't have, even if she'd wanted to. Her captor chanted softly beside her, a fact which startled Rosalyn. Such a feat was quite beyond her right then. As was any movement. Her terror stricken body was limp as a wet tunic.

And yet, there was a part of her that wanted to see. Wanted to know what such a terrible, impossible creature might look like. To gaze upon it with her own eyes.

But the feeling passed, and so did the creature. Whatever it might have been.

They'd lain there for a time. To be sure the danger was over.

"You lucky," said the leader as he rose, in answer to her unasked question.

"Old one take," he said, "take and keep. Then poof," his clenched fist shot wide open for emphasis, "all gone. Gone forever."

"You lucky," he'd repeated, jerking her to her feet with a tug at the rope circling her neck.

"You guests."

There were things in the forest. Things more terrible and mystifying than a lost tribe of people, no matter how strange or competent. And now they were drumming, loud sounds let loose for who knows what to hear. They had only laughed when she protested the first booming notes.

"Is the way," they had simply told her.

"The way of what?"

A shrug.

"The way it is done."

To her relief, claims of guesthood had not proven completely empty. Once the group was safely inside the bounds of their small village, not to mention completely lost, they had been untied and invited to join in the festivities. To her chagrin, so had the three thieves their group had been chasing. Off to the side, and looking a bit uncertain, but none the worse for the wear.

The chief, she had noted, was wearing one of the Duke's stolen pendants. A large, elegant gold chain and setting, sparkling with inset emeralds. A princely work, though as nothing next to the wealth and power of the Duke. To see such brazen thieves here did not sit well with Rosalyn. Not at all. When she had the chance, she fully intended to speak to the chief about this. Surely, no matter how strange they were, they would love thieves no better than any other people. It gnawed at her, looking at the three, seeing the small pieces of jewelry they had visible, and the hidden ones they no doubt still carried, but now was not the time for confrontation.

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