The difference between the Woodsman’s territory and that the hulder still clung to was stark and immediate. It was more than the absence of signs of fighting: in the area around the hulder village, the wood was open, like a well-tended garden. It looked as though man and beast alike would have been able to gain what they needed from the forest. Where the leshy controlled, however, was a riot of plant life and swarming bugs, so thick that anything larger than a rabbit would need to pick their way carefully through the underbrush in places.
Einarr frowned, wishing not for the first time that putting Erik and Jorir in the lead to cut their way through wouldn’t draw the leshy’s attention. Unfortunately, however, he was even more certain now than he had been before that the spirit was a stone-fisted tyrant who kept a careful watch over his demesne. This had been reinforced as they stepped across the battle-lines to see months’ worth of growth over land that had been fought over within the last few nights.
The bramble that spread before him presented no easy answer, of course. The thorny vines climbed not only the nearby trees but each other, weaving together in a chest-high mat that may as well have been a wall. It was the third such blockage they had run across, on three separate attempts to penetrate past a ledge they could just see on the other side.
“Is it just me, or are these vines following us?”
“Based on what we’ve already seen?” Jorir’s answer sounded mildly winded, and just as annoyed as Einarr felt. “It wouldn’t surprise me. Does that mean the creature already knows we’re coming, though?”
Erik grunted. “If he does, he doesn’t know what we intend. Otherwise we’d be fighting our way through.”
The sound of breaking branches and tearing vines signaled Irding’s less-than-graceful descent from a nearby tree. “The ledge curves around toward us just further on. I think we might be able to get through the vines there.”
Einarr took a deep breath, nodding. There was no point getting upset about the noise, not at this point. Not since he was pretty sure the Woodsman had known they were coming for hours now. “Worth a shot, then.”
Back through the brush they went, and once again Einarr would swear the plants were moving to impede their progress. He was not – yet – irritated enough to begin hacking his way through, but his fingers twitched.
Irding led the way this time, since he had the most recent lay of the land, and while there was much grumbling and cursing about the underbrush Einarr could not argue that his more direct route was slower than picking their way through easier paths. Or less effective: the vines, by the time they reached the ledge, did climb up and over it. However, where they went over the ledge, the vines were much lower to the ground, allowing just enough space for the five of them to hurry across.
The vines began to coil, snake-like, as Einarr half-leaped across. Erik followed next and the mat grew visibly taller. Jorir followed hot on his heels, and then Einarr offered a steadying hand for Runa. Even as she made the leap a vine reached up and thorns tore at her skirt.
Irding was the only one left, and now the vines were knee-high and still climbing visibly. The tall young man took a step and a half backwards before running forward to vault over the climbing hedge.
Irding stumbled a little at the landing and winced as he straightened himself.
“You all right?” Einarr asked.
The other man nodded perfunctorily. “Just a scratch. Nothing to worry about.”
“We should keep going, then.” Einarr started off again, deeper into the woods and away from the creeping hedge. The others followed close behind, Runa muttering under her breath the entire time as she ran through the instructions she’d been given.
The light that filtered through the canopy was dim now, the leaf cover above so thick the sky was not even visible in slivers. They pressed on through this until their thighs burned from the exertion of pressing through underbrush.
Einarr stopped and held up a hand for silence. Erik nearly collided with him, but no more than another heartbeat passed before Jorir quieted Runa.
The birdcalls had stopped. Up until that moment, the birds had not seemed to care that they existed, but now the forest stood in silence. Einarr strained his ears for the disturbance and came up empty, although his hackles stood on end. It felt as though something were watching them. Whatever it was, it felt hungry.
Something growled from off in the underbrush, something that was neither wolf nor bear nor lynx, and then the presence faded.
Einarr shrugged off the feeling of a lingering presence. “I think the Woodsman wants us to know he’s watching.”
“So it seems.” Jorir sounded just as unnerved as Einarr felt, for which Einarr was grateful.
“We’ve done nothing to his forest,” Erik reminded them. “He should have no reason to attack us.”
“Nothing except venture into his territory. That sounded like ‘go away’ to me.”
“You’re not wrong, milord.” Jorir’s eyes still scanned the forest around them, but the threat had passed. “Under other circumstances, I’d be inclined to oblige.”
“Under other circumstances, I’d agree. Let’s go.” Einarr heeded his own suggestion and started moving again, wading between a pair of shrubs that reached to his hip because there was no other route.
They had not gone much farther on when they spotted what passed for a clearing in the Woodsman’s territory. In the interest of a moment’s respite, and the vain hope that it might be the clearing they sought, Einarr steered his companions towards it. This clearing, however, contained no cave. Instead, its lone inhabitant was a massive brown bear. A bear, it should be noted, with stag’s antlers and red eyes.
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