Nothing pounced upon Reuben, nor did the forest swallow him into oblivion as he expected. At least not yet. And he sighed in relief.
Before following his friend into the woods, Wulfrik knelt down in the snow.
“Yes, now,” said Wulfrik. “We don’t know what is in there, and we don’t know what it wants. And if what Bazurr says is true, then there may be more than a witch, a walking forest, and dangerous beasts to fear. Life is rarely so simple. We may walk into a patch of forest thorns, and succumb to its poison in panic. We might encounter a tribe of færies and fall to sleep before we fall prey. Or perhaps we’ll tread on a wander-path and be bound to its circuit until our feet fall off.”
Having made his point, Wulfrik closed his eyes and muttered in his own tongue, a prayer to his gods. Above all to the feathered one: Haqqa.
He couldn’t remember the words, but Reuben understood what Wulfrik was saying, and why. As far as the two men knew, they were setting out into battle. For the last time. As far as they knew, they would never see the sun again, or even another night to appreciate the day. So Wulfrik recited a chant of his people. The warrior’s chant. In his brogue it went thus:
“I am old,
I am young,
I am cold,
But am not done.
Make me bolder,
Make me brave.
See me spear,
See my sabre,
Let it tear,
Let it razor.
Death be fine,
Death be near,
Death be mine,
But without fear.”
Finally, Wulfrik stood up and strode deep into the forest, with Reuben by his side.
Some hours later, the hunters were certainly lost. But they were not trying to find a way out. They were trying to find a witch.
The weald was thick and murky, but more so than they envisioned. The branches of fir and cedar, spruce and pine all stuck out from their respective trees in such a way as to prevent almost all light from penetrating the forest floor. And they made it difficult to manoeuvre, at least quickly. On more than one occasion, either Reuben or Wulfrik were forced to slash their way through a tangled mess of perennial limbs.
As they travelled, they heard birds and owls call. Sometimes bushes rustled, but they were most often rodents or rabbits. Once they saw a doe, and Reuben briefly spotted the tail of a fox, but neither animal stuck around. And those creatures they encountered all seemed normal and healthy.
“… Do you think there will be wolves?”
Wulfrik answered, “Perhaps. But a forest as cramped as this, I can’t imagine that there are many. I’d say we’d have better luck running into a lynx or a badger.”
Suddenly, the men heard a thud, and the earth shift and tremble.
“Did you hear that?” asked Wulfrik.
“Yes I did. So far, it’s the one thing the minister told us is true. The forest moves.”
Directly behind them, they saw the trunk of a juniper quiver, though there was no wind to speak of. Yet the ground where it was once rooted, nearly a foot away appeared undisturbed.
“I’d say we couldn’t recover any of our tracks if we wanted to.”
And there is nothing we can do about it. Wulfrik carried on.
To dull the quiet, and to keep his mind occupied on something other than the trees, Reuben asked, “How many witch hunts have you been on?”
But Wulfrik’s reply was dismissive, “Now is not the time.”
“Oh? Tell me when you think a better time might arise? Now is an excellent time, Wulf,” Reuben contended. “We are in the midst of hunting one.”
After a pronounced sigh and a long pause, Wulfrik finally said, “Four.”
“Four. That’s impressive.”
“You jest, Reuben, but when so many of your friends die in manners unfit for men, then you might just wipe that smirk off your face.”
“Then tell me about them. I want to know. Under the circumstances, I need to know.”
Again, Wulfrik was hesitant, but told his friend eventually. “Alright. My father sought lands to the east. But they were not his. They belonged to another warlord. A stronger warlord called Hrothgar. Rather than go to war, he decided instead that I was old enough to take my first wife, and that I be married to the warlord’s daughter. Hilda was her name.”
“What does this have to do with hunting a witch?”
Wulfrik glared, "If you are not interested in hearing the story, then we can journey on in awkward silence—”
“No, no, no! I’m sorry! Go on. I won’t interrupt.”
When he was sure Reuben would be quiet, Wulfrik continued his story. One Reuben had never heard before.
“Fifteen summers had passed for me, and I was wed to a girl a year older than myself. She was beautiful, and wise beyond her years. She was gifted too. At will she could make her onyx hair grow from her shoulders to her waist, make a spark with a snap of her fingers, and her eyes changed from brown to green. She told me her gifts were a secret, and that I should tell no one.
Immediately after our wedding, strange things began to happen among the clans. Though notably to ours. Women miscarried. Crops withered. For three weeks, the game and fowl died for no apparent reason, and was unsafe to eat. Then, among a hundred others, I contracted a deadly fever. Some of the elders believed that my wife was responsible for all that befell our people. Once they separated us, the food returned, and our people recovered. And Hilda was declared a witch. A succubus. A virago.
In the night, my father and his men slaughtered Hrothgar and his people, while they slept. However, Hrothgar’s family, Hilda included, were able to escape.
When I was well enough, we took up our horses and hunted them down. With our hounds. Chasing them into the Steppes of Andir. We lost three men to tar pits which had mysteriously sprung up from the earth.
On the fifth day of our hunt, a rukh spread her wings and swept over the plateau on which we had made camp. And ten more men died. Those who were not blown into the gorge, were scooped up in her talons, and if they survived, they probably were fed to her hatchlings. My father and the other men in the hunting party believed the rukh was summoned by Hilda.
Then came the rogue summer blizzard. Over three days it lasted, and claimed the life of another four men. My uncle was among them. Once again, my wife’s doing.
Finally, we tracked the last of Hrothgar’s family down, who were now so gaunt and weak from starvation and exhaustion that to kill them then would be an act of mercy.
And so they were rounded up, Hrothgar’s wife, her two eldest sons and Hilda, and we executed them. My father told me I had to kill her. Kill her or he and his men, who were at this point manic and half-starved themselves, would take turns raping her and kill her that way.”
He did his best to not look affected by the memories Reuben asked him to bring up, but it was evident that Wulfrik was hurt. Even as the dim light above them began to fade.
“Her feather is from my wrist to my elbow,” said Wulfrik, showing off his right arm to his friend. “Hers was the first tattoo I did on my own. My third witch hunt. I regret her death the most.”
“Why do regret it? You and your father may well have saved a great many of your people.”
“Possibly,” Wulfrik acquiesced, “But I cared for her. And while I believe a witch was responsible for making my land and my people sick, and for picking off the men in our hunting party, I do not think Hilda was the witch.”
Wulfrik noticed the light for himself and said, “I think that’s enough for one day. We should make camp here.”
Reuben bowed his head, and sighed. Sorry that he now knew that part of his friend’s life. But he agreed, it was time to rest for the night.
Then he looked around at the trees behind them. None of which were in their proper place. And he suggested to Wulfrik, “I think we should continue east in the morning. ”
Wulfrik nodded, and let the rest of the evening carry on in silence.