Evening crawled in at a snail’s pace, the sky slow to darken. Riss wasn’t in a strict taskmaster kind of mood; when Torcha and Calay suggested a hunt she let them go. In the meantime she made camp with Adal and Vosk.
When the time came to see the Baron’s soldiers and the horses off, Riss waved them off. She watched the small herd of animals and their shepherds ride away down the road, and once the sound of hoofbeats receded into the twilight, something felt… different.
Adal seemed to feel it too. He stepped a little closer to her and put a hand to her arm.
“I can tell you’re thinking what I’m thinking,” he said.
Riss curled up a smirk. “Oh? What am I thinking, Mister Altave?”
Adal’s voice held a subdued, pensive quality. “That this now feels much further away from the glow of civilization than the map says.”
… That was a closer approximation than she would have given him credit for. She grunted, an admission.
“It’s less how far we are now and more how far it’s going to feel when we’re four days on foot into the marsh.” She turned away from the road and walked back toward their campsite, passing by the dozens of spent and scattered fires.
The only real route into the marsh, if you could call it that, lay upon the same crossroads where they made their camp. A faint trail wound through the sparse trees, venturing deeper if one knew where to look. Vosk had directed them to its trailhead and they’d camped not far away.
Riss made herself busy: checked on the moa, unfurled her bedroll beside the tents, set to building the fire. Just as she unhitched her hatchet from her pack, Adal emerged from the woods, arms laden with kindling and branches. He’d beaten her to it. Of course he had.
Together, they dug a shallow firepit and built a pyramid of kindling. Riss unpacked her firestarter kit and chipped flint against the fire-steel until it sparked. As her hands worked the shard of flint and the small steel cylinder, the world seemed to melt away. She and Adal could have been sitting by any fire at any time, years in the past or years in the future. Something about the clink of flint on steel and the smell of fresh kindling and the tickle of smoke, it all became a gateway to another time and place. Every other time and place.
“Are you hungry?” Adal asked, clearing his throat. Riss blinked.
“Of course I’m hungry,” she said. “We’ve been riding all day.”
Reaching into his satchel, Adal produced a small apple. Its skin was waxy and shiny, striated pink and red. Some local variety Riss didn’t know the name of. She took the fruit in hand and smiled her thanks.
Adal busied himself with the fire, stoking it and adding progressively thicker branches. As he settled onto the bedroll beside hers, he spoke to Riss in a quiet, offhand way:
“You’re doing fine.”
The words were like a crossbow bolt. She shivered. Am I?
He knew. He somehow always knew.
The apple was tart, its flesh crisp. It made one’s teeth work for their reward, and eating it proved to be a much needed distraction from her thoughts. When Torcha, Gaz, and Calay tromped back into camp whooping triumphantly, lifeless swamp hens dangling from their hands, Riss was grateful for the noise.
Swamp hen wasn’t exactly a well-known delicacy. Riss had eaten it before–in the field, one couldn’t be picky–and found it nothing special. But she hadn’t had Deel swamp-dweller wisdom on her side in the past, and whatever Vosk had done to the birds was nothing short of extraordinary.
Riss tore chunks of flavorful dark meat off the bird’s thigh, each bite tender and tangy. Vosk had stewed the birds in some sort of broth that was mostly vinegar, a technique Riss had never heard of, and it had turned the tough, tasteless game tender and moreish. They ate the birds over sweet potatoes, digging in with such enthusiasm that conversation around the fire ground to a halt.
Finally, Riss broke the silence with a heavy sigh. She slouched back onto her bedroll and set the plate of picked-clean bones aside.
“Well,” she said. “If you cook like that every night, I don’t know if Baron Tarn will get you back.”
Vosk chuckled modestly, licking some sauce off his thumb.
With the fire burnt down to coals, the campsite glowed with a rosy red-orange color. Beyond the fire’s reach, the forest wasn’t terribly dark. A half moon and scattered stars gave light enough to see by. Enjoy it while it lasts, Riss thought.
“I hate to disrupt the mood…” Calay’s voice was muted, thoughtful. “But you were there, weren’t you?” He was looking at Vosk. Vosk seemed to take a moment to process the specifics of what you were there meant, but then he nodded.
Calay sought out Riss now, speaking with a lift of his palms. He was a constant gesturer, she’d noticed, a man who spoke with his hands as much as his mouth.
“I feel like Gaz and I are a little late to the party with what actually happened.” He sat cross-legged, regarding Riss across the fire. “And given we’re marching into that marsh tomorrow…” He trailed off, inviting Riss with a lift of his eyebrows.
He had a point.
She’d been sparing with details on the job listing. And Tarn had been sparing with details in his original letter to her. It was the old army way of doing things: everything that happened was on a need-to-know basis and the grunts didn’t need to know until they were just about in the thick of it. She’d planned on giving a more formal briefing when they entered the marsh proper.
Beside her, Adal pulled a face, his eyes narrowing at Calay. She twitched her hand a little, a tiny gesture meant to stave him off. Relax, the man’s asked a valid question.
They weren’t in the army anymore. Apart from the fact that she and Adal were the bosses, there wasn’t much of a hierarchy in place. Everyone had their assigned job. Everyone had their expertise. No one sitting at this particular fire was expendable cannon fodder.
“You aren’t that late to the party,” Riss told the man. She shifted her attention to Vosk. “In fact, I have yet to hear a first person account, myself.”
Vosk seemed to take that as a cue. He sniffed, then reached into his coat pocket. Withdrawing a small steel flask, he unscrewed the cap.
“Happy to tell you all I know, although I admit things are a little jumbled.” He took a nip from the flask and offered it aside to Gaz and Calay, who both shook their heads. Torcha, sat on the other side of him, accepted.
Riss reclined back and listened. She declined the flask when it made its way to her. Adal declined as well, possibly just following her lead.
Firelight played across Vosk’s features as he turned his head, staring off toward the trailhead for a time. Riss took a moment to study him. That cold, closed-off quality she’d sensed in him on the road had opened up some when he’d cooked their supper, but now he seemed to retreat again, as if he were less turning to look at the trailhead and more turning himself away from the fire.
“I don’t know how much you all know about the wood here,” he said at last.
Torcha cleared her throat. “I grew up outside Semmer’s Mill.” A small town a ways up the river, closer to the Deel than Riss’s hometown, at least. When Vosk didn’t speak up immediately, Torcha continued:
“You hear all kinds of stories about the woods.” She took a tiny sip from the flask. “Hunters that go in and don’t come back out. Witches living in bogs that are just as likely to eat you as grant you wishes.”
Vosk shook his head.
“Not the woods. The wood.” He grasped a small twig and twirled it between his fingers. “The Crawling Wood, they call it. That’s the place and the trees both.” Vosk braced the twig between his thumb and two fingers, then snapped it. “Trees grow different in the Crawling Wood. It’s tough to explain. You may have seen some examples at the castle, Riss. Strange grains, trees that aren’t seen anywhere else in the land.”
She did recall the gleaming, dark-veined wood of Tarn’s many bookshelves.
“Local legend has it that at some point in the distant past, something happened there. Back when the forest was druid homeland.”
Torcha chimed in with a quiet snort. “So back when druids were supposedly real.”
Riss gave her a look, mouth flat. Let the man continue.
“Look,” said Vosk, to Torcha. “Regardless of your views on druids, or magick, or any of the like. Everyone knows there are places where things are just… different. Wells of power. Or…” He seemed to fumble for the correct word for a moment. “Corruption.”
The word traced icy fingers up Riss’s spine.
“The groves in the Crawling Wood got corrupted somehow, way back when. And now they sort of… grow together.” Vosk set his jaw then, a fine line of tension standing out upon his throat. He shifted, drawing his shoulders a little tighter in. “They call it braidwood or meldwood. And it is extremely, extremely valuable. A good haul of meldwood sold to the right buyer feeds a man’s family for half a year.”
Tarn may not have been a man with an appetite for luxury, but he’d know a valuable resource when confronted with one. It made sense that Tarn would try to secure that trade, especially now that he had a castle to pay for.
“The Baron sends regular parties for it,” said Vosk. “Three or four a year, usually. We don’t go near the Wood during the rainy season. It’s too unpredictable. But any other time, well.” There was a tic at the corner of Vosk’s mouth, Riss noticed. Subtle but present. His lip twitched.
“The Baron put his son, Lukra, in charge of the expeditions. And whatever you might think about nobility glad-handling their kiddies through their first jobs, this wasn’t that. Lukra Gullardson was a skilled logger. He had a real eye for the marsh, too. Before the war, the old Duke, his logging parties lost double the men Lukra’s did.”
Tarn was hardly nobility. But Riss kept that thought to herself. It was clear her old commander had made a name for himself as a highblood in these parts.
“It was an uneventful expedition. We went five days in. No problems with snakes or bugs. Nobody got sick. We could hear the panthers howling some nights but they leave groups our size well enough alone.” Vosk seemed to grind his teeth a moment. That tic twitched at his lips again. “I’m still not sure whether we were tracked in or whether they stumbled across us and our cargo by accident. Bandits. I never saw how many. It’s all a little scrambly from here on out. They jumped us after nightfall. They had guns.”
Vosk pursed his mouth and let out an annoyed breath.
“In broad daylight it would have been nothing we couldn’t handle. But they caught us with our trousers down. They wanted our haul. Forced us all onto our knees. Took our birds and most of our supplies. We knew we couldn’t track them in the dark, so Lukra waited until dawn. He ordered three of us back home, to inform the Baron what had happened. He said if they couldn’t dredge up the thieves, they’d be back in a matter of days.”
Riss knew the story from there.
“Has there been any sign of them at all?” Calay spoke up after a few moments. His brows knit.
“Baron Tarn sent two separate scouting parties, but they haven’t turned up a scrap. No evidence of Lukra’s loggers, or a bandit camp. Nothing.” Vosk shrugged. “It’s possible they became lost. Or were overpowered by the bandits. Or perhaps they ran into something worse. I’ve seen what those trees can do.”
“What the trees can do?” This time it was Adal.
“Aye, sir.” Vosk looked Adal in the eye, and there was a minute shift in his face. The tic at the corner of his lips, Riss realized, had been anger held back. And it vanished when creeping traces of fear sneaked in.
“The meldwood doesn’t just meld with wood, if you get what I’m saying. They call it meldwood because it’ll meld with anything it touches. Other trees. Animals. Men.”
Stifling silence fell over the camp. The fire alone crackled.
“Some of the trees are more awake than others. They’ll seek out movement, heat, however it is they find people. It’s like they want to absorb things. Like they’re feeding.” He hid it well, but Riss could smell the residue of withheld trauma. It gleamed on some folks like sweat. Perhaps because it took one to know one.
“That’s why they call it the Crawling Wood.” Vosk’s voice lost some volume. “Because at night, sometimes, you can hear the trees moving. Little creaks and cracks like someone’s walking toward your camp, but you look up and no one’s there. The three of us Lukra sent back…” He paused. When he finally spoke again, Riss could tell the words he chose weren’t the first that came to mind. He’d sifted through them, each word spoken with care.
“We’re lucky the trees only got one of us on the way home.”
Riss had faced worse things than walking, hungry trees. Hadn’t she?
With each breath, she felt herself drawing closer and closer to sleep. Yet she couldn’t quite get there, jolted into semi-consciousness by little hypnic jerks and every creaking branch on the wind. She hated to admit it, but Vosk’s story had spooked her.
Little puff-snort snores drifted over from one of the other bedrolls. Torcha.
“That’s my cue,” Riss muttered to herself. She could fall asleep once the others did. It didn’t make any logical sense, she knew, but she hated being the first to drift off. Old superstition from her new-boots days.
“It is a rather soothing sound.”
Riss jolted at the voice, snapping her head to the side. Adal lay on his side, tucked up under a blanket, his back to her. She hadn’t realized he was awake.
“Can you believe this shit.” Riss shifted so that she was facing Adal’s back. He was visible as a slumped silhouette in the half-light of leftover coals. “Murderous trees.”
“Mm.” Adal was silent for a beat. “And to think I gave up a riverboat empire for the honor.”
“You’re mad.” Riss ducked deeper down into her blanket, smothering a yawn in her forearm.
The retort was so juvenile Riss could only chuckle until it tapered off into a yawn.
The night passed without incident. She woke to the sounds and smells of someone fixing breakfast.