never posted any work before so entirely uncertain this is the right thing to do. It is a side shoot of a much larger project and these courses have provided tremendous encouragement in moments of self doubt…which at present are legion! If you read then many thanks 🙂
“Old forests have history”, Devlin was thinking aloud.
The long march northwards was making his mind crawl. It was humid and the soil was soft. Teaming with life, some of it not kind and two had already been poisoned by ignoring their footfalls. Ten had started, now there were eight, nine including himself. Two warriors, one sorcerer and five of the Elite. The latter were the Kings ward; proficient in tracking, medicine, armed and unarmed combat. Most called them assassins. It was none of their guard that had fallen foul of the forrest fauna. Devlin despised woods, especially old ones filled with giants that reached skywards in great wood columns ending in a green intertwined mesh that brought dusk to the floor. The trunk density made horses impossible so theirs had been turned loose four days earlier when the landscape changed from lowland plains to a wall of oaks barring their path like some living fortress. From the plains it look dark and oppressive; inside it was worse. Some said there was no other side and souls of those that died trying patrolled within adding to their number in a legion of undead. The wizard said otherwise; at least he said there was another side and ten days from plain to tundra if the pace was good and path true. That left six to go.
On they walked in silence. The ground muffling their passage. By the fifth day even the forest was silent; deafeningly so. The darkness was pitch, the daytime sunlight weak and sickly as it attempted to find holes in the canopy above. The humidity was nearing unbearable and Devlin’s concentration was waning. By seven days it had gone almost entirely. The wizard had taken point and moved a steady course; a conjured ball of light guiding his path. For two days past Devlin was conscious of ghosts walking in his peripheral vision. They were always gone when he looked directly. Gone or at one with the shadows marking the boundary of the wizard light. On more than one occasion the Elite had swords semi drawn as if they too were sensing something drawing closer. Perhaps they also saw the phantasms easing from trunk to trunk following their course out of the corners of their eyes. Devlin was mindful the Elite had said nothing since entering the forest. The oldsters said they went silent knowing the end of their days was approaching. It was some form of meditation where peace was made with the Gods and acceptance of the path facing them. Fight hard and die well in battle; flee and disgrace befalls you and your kindred. Honours revoked and family discharged into the southern wilderness. Survive or die. There were many ways to die in those lands; most did not involve starvation. There was little Devlin had seen to prove this myth as, personally, he had never seen the Elite return outside of victory. They came back or they didn’t. No retreat, no survivors. His House Lords considered exile to be dangerous down the line too. Surviving in the wild lands would breed very hard warriors with reason to lay claim to their ancestry at some point. He preferred it to be a wives tale spoken to keep the mystery alive. He considered the two in front. Light armour chest and back plates held together with leather cord. The sigil was a serpent of fleshless bleached bones set against the blackened metal. Gauntlets of similar material ran down forearms, ending in knuckle guards leaving the hands free to grip and function efficiently in unarmed combat. Likewise lightweight shin and thigh guards protected the legs back and front but left knees to flex. It made them vulnerable but offset was speed of movement and no restrictions to the martial kicks that could turn an encounter upside down. They carried weaponry crafted in secret by smiths and sorcerers commissioned under oath of secrecy. Again the oldsters said failure to comply was met by exile. All had three sheathed blades; thin set edges honed in magical fires that could cut through armour and bone. One long, one short and a dagger. Bows and quivers lodged over their backs and small throwing knives strapped down leather braces that crossed diagonally across the chest plates; three on each side; hilts down pointing where they could be grasped and slung underarm straight from their mounts.
Devlin was in the middle of the two warriors. They were his retinue. Good men but down by two. The other Elite were split; two walked behind and the last up front with the wizard who carried the light. Devlin knew very little about the augurer. He’d come with the Elite, or rather the Elite had come with him. He resided within a plain charcoal coloured cloak with a hood the for most of the journey that hid his grey bearded face. He looked haggard, like the weight of many toils rested squarely on his shoulders. His staff bore a small carved eagle that sat atop a jewelled globe on the upmost end. The fact he was coveted by the Elite suggested great esteem. Again the oldsters had tales of men that were enchanted and could make a mans blood boil with nothing but a stare. Devlin had never seen one in the flesh until this one had arrived with Kings orders to escort him to the North. Nothing else, just North; his business was his own. Except now, with the loss of two brethren it seemed more like it was he and his pack brothers that were being provided for. The place was cursed with evil. It was in the air, on the ground and in the creatures living within; including whatever kept toying with his peripheral vision.
Ahead the wizard stopped. The Elite simultaneously drew swords. To left and right shades had emerged from the darkness. Three on each side, ethereal swords shimmered blue pointing upwards with hilts gripped in darkness waist high. These were not living men; faceless shapes that blurred at the edges. Devlin knew undead when he saw them. Souls of the dead lie here; the oldsters again. The wizards staff struck the earth and a second ball of light rose upwards illuminating the company. The Elite spread into a defensive formation. The pack brothers were left to find their own stand.
Devlin watched in slow time as the shadow men came forward. Not walking but gliding. Advancing before them was a swirling mist. Knee high and ice cold it brought a dismal aura with it. Filling the hearts of Devlin’s men with dread. The Elite were unaffected. They knew death was with them the moment the horses were set free and the first steps into the Barrow Woods was taken. Fight hard and die well. They were not afraid and were already at peace with their Gods. The first stepped forwards as one of the revenants threw a diagonal cut sweeping downwards right to left. The Elite parried; his sorcerers blade withstanding the blow. Devlin’s pack brother, Taiord, was not so fortunate. He had launched a mighty blow that was blocked by a shimmering sword with such force the warriors sword broke cleanly on impact. The undead swung laterally and Taiord’s torso fell in two just above the waist spilling guts and innards into the ground mist. The revenant continued slicing open the other brother diagonally from hip to shoulder while he was stunned by the severing of Taiord. Devlin watched the cut momentarily before blood spewed and his comrade fell to his knees; a cry of pain echoing off the surrounding trees. The Elite held their own for a short time and had they been fighting living men would surely have been victorious. Blows landing on the shades were denied solid impact. Their forms wavered like smoke, allowing steel to pass through then reshaped. The first to fall lost an arm at the shoulder followed by his head. The remainder were similarly dismantled until only Devlin remained in a clearing full of blood. Of the wizard there was no sign. The revenants turned, swords parked in upright homage, and began to advance. The last warrior moved backwards, fear creeping into every bone. His sword arm dropped and fingers unfurled letting the blade fall to join those of the fallen. His back found an oak barring further retreat. It struck him not one of the Elite had uttered a sound in death; the oldsters spoke true. The ring of shades formed a circle about his tree. The one in front lowered a glowing blade and advanced. Devlin saw its eyes were crimson and without mercy. He watched, frozen in terror, as the blade point entered his neck and found the wood behind. His final moments in slow time were of some undead phantasm snarling in victory as his bladder emptied and gurgling sounds came from his mouth.