Dreamscapes during the night were rare for Wulfrik. In fact, he could not remember the last time he had dreamt. So deeply. So vividly.
Yet once he opened his eyes, it had already begun to fade. What he recalled were flashes of dead horses, and trees whipping by. Whispers also. But they hung in Wulfrik’s mind only slightly longer, and rang about like echoes. They were poisoned… Have a good hunt… Why can’t I run fast enough?
The morning was much colder than the night before. Frost clung to everything. Shingled roofs, and shuttered windows. Carts and roads. Even Wulfrik’s gruff beard. It looked and felt far less like autumn. Twas as brisk as it had felt in Wulfrik’s dream.
After leaving the auberge, the men set out to the castle gates, where they were met by Bazurr and his entourage. And like Reuben and Wulfrik, he too was dressed warmly.
“Greetings,” proclaimed the minister.
Wulfrik grunted in reply, while Reuben only gave a look of acknowledgement.
The mercenaries turned to their stallions they had been lent the night before, and noticed immediately how ill they both appeared. Their coats were dull, eyes were sunken, and their heads were held quite low.
Reuben was as aghast as Wulfrik to see their horses’ conditions reflected their dream.
And he grumbled, “These horses are infirm,” as he ran a hand along its neck, ere feeling its slow heartbeat under its elbow.
“Yes. Quite ill.” said Wulfrik who stroked the mane of his own steed after diagnosing it.
Haughtily, Bazurr said to his guards, “Bring these men new horses… Now!”
Immediately two of the guards left as their master commanded, though Reuben called after them, “And make sure these ones are well taken care of! Change their food, water, and their straw!”
“My goodness,” the minister nearly tittered, “Well spotted! That would have been disastrous had your mounts died on your quest through the forest.”
Wulfrik saw Reuben’s grip tighten around his lance, and the hatred and the ire in Reuben’s eyes. He too felt it, as they spoke with the king’s closest advisor. However, both men managed to restrain themselves from striking out in anger, as they had done in a dream.
Bazurr continued, “It was most fortunate you saved them.”
“Well, I doubt they will survive,” said Wulfrik.
Like everything else that day, his doubts stemmed from a dream, and he feared it might be premonition. “They looked as though they had been poisoned. Perhaps too far gone to be cured.”
Gasp in his tone, Bazurr repeated, “Poisoned? Do you think the witch had something to do with it?”
It was unlikely, as Wulfrik and Reuben both seemed to know, that the witch was responsible for the horses’ ailments. Especially as the stables were safe behind the castle walls. Though the hunters’ suspicions were further compounded by the method of execution. Wulfrik had seen the plight of witches, and a simple poisoning was far from the norm.
But Reuben agreed with Bazurr through gritted teeth. “Yes. Probably.”
“My my, Reuben Masterson, you seem positively… nettled.”
“Mattinson,” corrected Reuben, though less angry now, and more agog.
“Of course. My mistake.”
The duo, along with Bazurr and his retinue rode out past the castle walls and along the main road through Linter. On the avenue’s sides, Wulfrik watched as the buildings became smaller and less and less extravagant. At the start were tall homes where the wealthy among the people resided, as well as the finer establishments. Further down, were more run-down structures. Taverns and tenements, then shacks and outbuildings.
And all down the way Wulfrik thought the city empty. Ghostly. Though early morning, there were so few people awake and living, for a city of that scale. And they were all considerably quiet. Quick about their business. And quite timid. Whether they feared the night, outsiders, or had adopted such a state after the witch had cursed their land, the sell-swords weren’t sure. Odd, thought Wulfrik.
Eventually, the group came upon the outskirts of the capital and the edge of the neighbouring wood. Snow covered the earth and the tops of the trees most of all. And under all that snow, despite a deepening fall, the forest was evergreen. Moreover, it was thick, and it was dark, and it was awfully vast.
“Gentlemen, I give you the Timbers of Pytham,” said Bazurr with a broad sweeping motion. He added, “Our scouts report that she was within the vicinity not too long ago. Not that that matters?”
“Why would that not matter?” asked Reuben.
Bazurr smiled, “Ah you see… our little hinterland here is not like any other. Not anymore. Over a thousand leagues in every direction, and as dense through and through as it is here, you’ll likely never find her. Unless she wants to be found.”
“You may be right minister,” said Wulfrik, “but in my country there are dozens of forest, over ten times as large. This does not compare.”
“Even so, it is not like any other.”
Wulfrik dismounted and then asked, “In what way?”
“Since the witch has come, people become lost. Even if they do not venture deep within the trees. Be them young children or berry-pickers, or woodcutters. Aside from the witch, no one has ever found their way back.”
Reuben pried further, “No one?”
“Well,” Bazurr sighed, “after a dare, one brave young man tied a rope to his waist, before he went in ten or twenty yards, while his friends held onto it from outside.”
“But he survived, did he not?”
“Oh yes, he lived… for a time. After a day and night of tugging, the man was finally pulled free of the forest by his friends, half-crazed and screaming. Then his friends struggled to keep him from running back in.”
Bewitched, thought Wulfrik.
“Did he say how he became lost?”
“Almost immediately. He screamed that the forest became alive. That while his back was turned, the trees unrooted themselves and walked about to sully his path. And while he tried to return at first, the trees whispered to him, and… convinced him to stay. As did the feral beasts who live there.”
A living, breathing forest. Such magicks are especially dark. This witch must possess immense power to enchant an entire wood.
“They say,” Bazurr persisted, “that the witch’s home is on an island in the forest. An island among the trees, that does not float on water, but over the soil, and that the trees move themselves and their roots out of the way.”
Reuben dismounted also, and reluctantly, gave up his lance once he saw how cramped it would be within the forest. How unwieldy it would be.
Bazurr inquired about their horses, “Won’t you need those?”
Reuben answered, “A horse could never navigate through this dense wood. We’ll leave them…” but his voice trailed off as though he had once heard such words. As though he had said such words before.
“Very well, this is where I leave you,” the minister replied. “And remember, you are to return with her entire body. I pray you will have a good hunt. Ta-ta, Brothers!”
Wulfrik and Reuben watched as Bazurr rode off with his sentinels. Though not in the carriage as both men had foreseen, but on his own horse.
When they were out of range, Reuben spoke, “Wulfrik, there is something familiar about this morning. As though the day had been plucked from a dream and now I am reliving it. And what’s more, I feel it does not bode well.”
Yes, thought Wulfrik. A dream.
“Don’t worry,” said Wulfrik, “you’re not alone. Though this place is foreign to me, I too have been here before.”
“Should we proceed?”
“That depends on how skilled we think we are in combat. And how many of Bazurr’s words can be trusted.”
Reuben stood for a moment contemplating just that. For if what the minister said of the the witch and forest were true, then he knew they may never leave.
“There’s one way to find out,” and Reuben stepped inside.