The horned wolf stalked a few paces to Einarr’s left and lowered its head, staring down its opponent. It growled and tossed its head as it turned and stalked several steps in the opposite direction. It could not circle its opponent as it wished. When it snarled again, Einarr brought Sinmora up, poised for an overhead strike.
The possessed wolf bounded in for another attack, but as it did it seemed to grow, and its silver fur grew shaggy, green, and mossy. Soon it stood on two feet, no longer a wolf at all. Surprised, Einarr staggered back a step as Einarr and Jorir came to flank him. Runa’s rhythmic chanting had not faltered.
Einarr saw no more wolves: even the one that had watched him hungrily after falling back with its tail between its legs was gone. Now it was just the four of them and a creature that could only be the Woodsman.
A giant, Einarr might have called it even a year ago, although closer in height to the fimbulvulf than to Fraener. The suggestion more than the fact of a pair of legs, and arms like great sweeping tree branches. And, sitting atop the over-broad “shoulders,” the wooden skull of a stag.
The Woodsman gave a roar like the crashing of wood as it closed the distance between itself and the interlopers, even as Runa’s chant built into a crescendo.
The leshy swung at the three men with one club-like arm, turning its whole body with the blow. Einarr hurled himself forward into a roll and felt the wind of the branch’s passing far more closely than was comfortable.
They couldn’t move out of the creature’s path, however, not until Runa finished with her part. Einarr came out of his roll in front of one tree-like leg and hacked at it with Sinmora. The blade embedded itself in the wood, but did little other than knocking free some bark.
The thudding of axes signalled Erik and Jorir’s attempts to slow the unfamiliar monster, to similar effect.
“You almost done?” Einarr called behind him, yanking free his blade. Not that Runa could answer him. He looked up: with a little luck…
The “leg” he stood before was gliding towards him. Now or never. Einarr took half a step back and ran forward, scrabbling up the trunk in hopes of grabbing hold of a branch.
He was in luck. Just as he lost the last of his momentum, Einarr was able to throw his sword arm over a branch jutting out from the creature’s arm as it swung past. Now he was sailing through the air, hanging on by an elbow to what was effectively a tree trying to kill him.
His life had taken a definite turn for the strange somewhere along the line.
At the top of the swing, Einarr managed to loop a leg over the branch he had grabbed hold of and pull himself up.
Moments later, a pulse of energy spread out through the clearing. The Woodsman stopped moving, just for a moment.
That moment was long enough. In that space where the leshy was frozen, Erik and Jorir both buried their axes in its trunk. Arrows flew from Irding’s tree, although it was uncertain what an arrow could do to such a thing. Einarr began to run up the limb he had pulled himself onto.
“It’s done!” Runa’s voice seemed to echo through the clearing. “Let’s get out of here!”
They were not supposed to try to fight the Woodsman. Auna had said they thought it was unkillable, and Einarr could already see why. But as his feet carried him closer to the stag’s head on top of the furious trunk, he could see no way out but forward. A yell escaped his throat as he charged the creature’s head, Sinmora raised high for the strike.
Several things happened at once as he reached the wooden skull. First, Sinmora cleaved into it and it shattered like a rotten log. Second, a vine lashed across his back and caught around his leg. A skull-shattering cry echoed among the trees. And the five companions were hurled bodily from the clearing.
The moon had long since set, and the world was beginning to lighten again, by the time the five reunited around Runa, who was once again tending to a wounded, groaning Irding. Had it not been for the sound, they might have searched for each other a good deal longer.
Erik kindled a small fire from dead tinder near their impromptu campsite, and Jorir promptly set some stones over it for heating water. When Einarr arrived, he was grinding herbs for a poultice for their injured companion.
“So,” he said, his voice low to avoid carrying. “How do we know if we succeeded?”
“We get back and Auna’s people are still there, I think,” Runa answered. Her song magic had done what it could for now. They would have to wait for Irding to regain consciousness on his own, and for Jorir’s poultice to do its job.
Erik grunted. “Tough going, with an injured man.”
“Not like we know if there’s any other help nearby.” Jorir was laying strips of bandage over the poultice herbs now.
“No. And as much as I hate to chance it, we should all try to get some sleep before we go wandering about in the forest again. Be a really stupid reason to get lost, trying to find our way back exhausted.”
“I’ll keep watch,” the dwarf volunteered. “The Woodsman probably still has spies about, an’ I doubt I’ll be sleeping anyway.”
“My thanks,” Einarr nodded at his liege man. He leaned back against the trunk of a nearby tree and shifted his shoulders until he found an almost-comfortable position.
Erik lay back on the ground where he sat, staring up at the canopy. He sounded uneasy when he spoke, but the reasons were all too many and too obvious. “Good night, then.”
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