Zander flexed his feet, settling more firmly into his perch between the tree trunks. He embraced stillness, letting the peace of the forest wipe away the stiffness of muscle and the weariness of travel. The forest was beginning the transformation from daylight bustle to twilight. Gone were the birdsong, the cry of insects, even the rush of wind through branch. Soon, the silence would stretch, connecting with the sounds of night, those nocturnal creatures of the forest beginning to stir, the predators searching for their next meal. He settled and waited, listening for sounds that did not belong to the forest.
To his left, a stick snapped. Zander turned his head, his eyes scanning the forest for the offending creature. Sounds grew, the scratch of a branch brushing down metal, the quiet thunk of heavy feet stepping over something. A quiet voice spoke, the words a murmur in the growing darkness.
Zander smiled, settling back into his perch more comfortably. The trees to his back were twisted and old, grown together into a gathering of shadow and branch. At his feet, the elder tree had given up it’s long duty to reach the stars, and the fallen trunk stretched before him in moss-covered sections. Between the trees at his back and the large section of green at his feet, two dogwood bushes sprouted, their reddish bark filling the space to his left and right. Nestled in, Zander blended into the forest, one solid shadow in a thousand twilight shapes. Only movement or sound would betray him, his brown and dark blue clothing lending to his disguise. And he was long versed in the game of silent waiting.
Ilyena would be mad, of course. She was convinced something was wrong, in the forest or in the world she couldn’t answer. But her sleep had been troubled, and she didn’t feel safe in the forest. At least, she reasoned, if she went to court she could speak to others who might feel such dark omens as she did, and verify if she were mad or worse, correct in her premonition. Something was changing in the world. Zander found the pace the woman and her child set to be maddeningly slow, however. He was only escorting them to the nearest city, two days march south and east. The land this far north was far too wild to have the sort of travel arrangements Ilyena desired. And so, Zander ranged ahead, sometimes as much as a half mile, letting the two catch up and guessing as to their direction and arrival times. It was a juvenile game, he admitted, the sort of young buck challenge all the forest rangers might play, in their teen years. Still, it amused him.
From the trees came a small group of bright metal and leather. Faces dark in the shadows of the forest, they walked forward, staying within arms reach of each other. With the setting sun, the splashes of leather over chainmail seemed to glow, as the dull metal caught what remaining light could be reflected in the twilight. The chances that one of them was woodwise seemed unlikely. That they were soldiers was the best bet. None wore a pack, and all were armored, armed, and similarly enough dressed to be considered a unit. There was no chatter, no element of sightseeing as they tromped through the near-dark forest.
The soldiers progressed north, following the curve of the valley. Zander frowned. Were they patrolling for a larger force or searching for a place to make camp? Perhaps they had been sent to deal with the bandits recently seen to attack travelers in the area. The forest had been uneasy of late, the more skittish creatures moving east, the hardier animals quicker to anger or defense. Zander hesitated as they continued north, disappearing into the dusk of the trees. Ilyena and Lily were heading this way, Ilyena hoping to travel a few more hours before bedding down. But if the soldiers were to circle back, Ilyena might walk right into them. And she had been very adamant that they not encounter anyone until they were at least a day or two from home.
Even tied to the forest as she was, she was not wood-wise. Ilyena relied on her senses and magic to alter the forest around her. The forest spoke to Ilyena, though, and gave her guidance. Zander, on the other hand, was raised to blend into the power of the forest, using the forest to his advantage. Their specialties were only linked by the commonality of nature.
He had followed her to the city when she had served as the King’s advisor, his half elven heritage making him stand out in the city of stone, alone among many, humans dominating this Kingdom of Elenia. His own people preferred to wander the wilds of the North, led by clan and family. Once a year, the elves held a Gather, and dealt with the matters of the world that an elf might not solve for himself or another. It was a form of government Zander understood. Not this figurehead King, who did not even know the names of his peoples, nor the breadth of his Kingdom. How could one man solve for hundreds?
Worse, his learned hedge magic was useless, so far from the powers of the forest. While Ilyena had plenty of knowledge to share about the land and the nature of her magic, Zander was far more comfortable under tree, and had left for the forest months before Ilyena returned from the King’s courts.
Slipping from his cover, he followed the soldiers into the valley to the south. He had left the nature caster and her daughter nearly a half turn past, to scout the path ahead. Perhaps, if the soldiers continue to turn south, he could sneak through and warn Ilyena without them ever knowing he was here.
The soldiers marched straight through the undergrowth here, the canopy blocking much of the light and the ground cover becoming sparse as they bent and broke whatever grew in their path. There was much already winter brown in the thickets, and they had no trouble crunching through various plants, though it was still harvest season. Zander slid behind another tree, watching their progress, and frowned. Reaching down with silent fingers, he felt the earth with his bare fingers, his half-gloves only covering his palm and knuckles.
Something wasn’t right, the soil was dry and gray. He thought back to the leaves above, and remembered there was little green to the trees in this grove, having already shed their leaves for the season. Early for it, truth told, and the ground held few fresh leaves. Perhaps this strand of trees was blighted, but he hadn’t noted any signs of sickness on his last tour through. Nor were there any down or dying branches, just a dulling of color and a strangeness to the usual smell of the wood. He stopped focusing on the soldiers for a moment, and listened. Zander faintly heard the tinkle of a stream, an inlet or outlet from the larger river to the northwest, most likely. There was water here. He scratched at the stubble on his chin, trying to figure out what bothered him.
He was still frowning at the soil when he heard the first soldier yell. Heart in his throat, he quickly crept forward, keeping to the growing shadows as the sounds of battle began. But it was not Ilyena he spied, fighting the soldiers off, Lily cowering beside her.
When he rounded the last copse of undergrowth, he didn’t see any familiar faces, in fact. Instead a blighted tree, roots torn from the earth in jagged chunks, swung stiff limbs at the soldiers, who scrambled out of its way, weapons drawn. Zander stared, for the tree was attacking the soldiers as if a thing alive. It was strangely short, a knot of darkened wood giving the impression of a head, but there was nothing human about it. Slim limbs were already breaking, and the larger branches were jagged, leaving a splintered protrusion at the end of each limb.
The soldiers were formed up, weapons drawn, as the tree closed with them. It was slow, it’s steps groaning like a tree in the storms might under a strong wind. Small groupings of tangled, bending dragged forward seemed to lift the trunk up and hold it, so that the thick part near the roots themselves was on sword level with the soldiers. The tree swung back, and the soldiers braced for a strike. A tingle ran down his spine, and Zander darted from cover.
“Scatter! It is too strong to block!” he bellowed, sliding down the incline towards the valley floor. Several soldiers near the back of the formation broke off, moving back from the tree, but the front line was too close. There was a sickening crack as the tree limbs struck the first four or five soldiers, crushing them beneath thick limbs. The next few were lifted off their feet as branches stuck through armor and body alike. Flung, the soldiers and broken wood landed among their remaining fellows. While they were still recovering, the tree reared it’s branches back. Zander reached the thing’s back just as it brought those broken branches crashing down on the prone bodies on the ground again, and the soldiers’ screams stopped.
There was a moment of stillness then, as if the living could not fathom what had just happened. Then Zander was among the tree’s roots, an axe in one hand and his long dagger in the other. Focusing on those long supportive roots holding the trunk above the dirt, he swung and dug the axe deep. The tree shuddered, and began to straighten out of its slump, dragging broken limbs from broken bodies as it stood upright. The slow speed was a help, and Zander hacked at a few more roots before beginning his withdrawal. The tree began to turn as well, so he darted around it, hacking. If the soldiers were smart, they would use the opening to check for wounded and start regrouping.
Glancing away from the tree as he back peddled, he tried to find the soldiers, to see what they were doing. Running along his left was a soldier, her helmet knocked free, her armor caked in dirt and leaves. She must have been one of those the tree had knocked down. The soldier was wielding a large sword, two handed and braced over her right shoulder as she rushed the turning tree. Zander stopped for a moment, surprised at her anger, but then, they were her companions who were now broken and bleeding behind the fight. He changed his own trajectory to circle the tree as it turned towards the woman.
“Let’s see how intelligent it is. I will attack it’s back, try to dance sideways as it rears back to strike!” he yelled to the woman, as he raced past her. The tree had managed to complete its turn and the branches were starting to rise. The woman screamed something and struck the tree’s trunk with her sword. The blade stuck to the tree for a moment, and Zander thought she wouldn’t manage to clear before the branches crashed down. But with a roar, the woman twisted the sword and a large chunk of the tree came away as she dove to the left. The branches crashed to the forest floor where she had stood, and it was back to Zander.
“Aim for the roots! Let’s not give it a leg to stand on.” Zander darted in again, and broke another of the supporting limbs with his strikes. The tree was straightening again, the strange knot on it’s front that Zander thought of as the face slowly turning his way. He began to dance to the right, to keep the creature spinning, when movement caught his eye. He ducked a branch swinging down from the canopy, stumbling at his sudden adjustment, and would have gone down, except the woman was there, catching the arm-thick branch with her sword. She swung her body forward with the sword, and sliced straight through the branch. The broken end fell heavily to the ground, while the stump continued its forward motion.
Gasping, Zander reached for the woman’s arm, pulling her back as the tree bent backwards, pointing more branches their way. On the other side of the clearing, the remaining soldiers helped the wounded out of the valley, back the way the group had come. That was good, Zander thought, for the wounded and the other soldiers. Not so good for the two remaining. The tree was moving more slowly, and Zander, his hand still through the woman’s arm, glanced around the valley for some sort of help.
“The hillside! If we can rush up the hillside, chances are it will follow us. We two move much more quickly than it, and with the damage to the roots, we only have to get it swinging like this at the incline, and it should go down?” Zander grinned at the woman’s wary expression.
“You are far too cheerful,” she huffed, hefting her sword back onto her shoulder and eyeing the hillside. The tree was straightening again. Her skin was flushed with the heat of battle, and her brown eyes were grim. “Seems like the best strategy, though. Might as well try, buy the others some time to get the wounded out.” Her eyes seemed to rest on the bloody pile of branches and bodies across the valley floor.
“Let’s split up, and see who the tree follows. The winner rushes up the hill, and we see if the tree follows. The person who isn’t followed gets to hack a bit more.” Zander motioned the warrior to the right, while he darted left.
The tree had straightened, the knot looking off to the left, the branches much shorter than when the encounter began. Zander tried not to wonder if the thing felt pain, for it had shown no signs of either comprehension or hesitation as it drove the branches towards the forest floor. The tangle of root-like branches at the base of the trunk were broken and oozing sap. At least Zander hoped the clear, wet liquid was sap. Overall, the tree looked like a storm had caught it after a frost, with limbs exploded, branches bent and not a leaf on the body of the creature at all.
The tree began walking towards the soldier, who took her cue and inched her way up the incline towards the top of the valley. The ground here was uneven, with signs of wash out clearing the hillside sometime recently. This meant large rocks, exposed roots and even downed trees slowed progress up the hill. The woman stopped once or twice, and each time a loud crack caused the tree to sway as she pelted down rocks on it. Zander was afraid to strike, in case the tree might think him an easier target.
After several long moments, though, the incline seemed too much for the tree, who stopped. Zander rushed in, and began hacking at the larger roots, even as the soldier screamed and charged the tree from above. There was a moment when it seemed the tree wasn’t sure who to attack. Then branches groaned as they came crashing towards Zander’s head. The nimble man dodged left, his axe biting into a root as he slid sideways on the hillside, only to scramble uphill slightly and resume the attacks. Sliding downhill was easier, and quicker, and Zander dodged the next branch that way, sparing a glance for the soldier. She seemed to be holding her own, and had opted to try and chop the branches off as they attacked, rather than scramble up or down hill.
An instinct had Zander turning his head in time to see the soldier take a knee. He was too far away to see if it was an injury which took her down, but it wouldn’t matter when the tree crushed her. Luckily, the tree was still attacking them both, and Zander struck once more at the roots, severing another pair before he abandoned his attack and scrambled up the hillside.
It was a horrible idea, but there was no time to think about how horrible. Three deep breaths, and as the tree reared itself up again, Zander ran full tilt towards it. A raised tree trunk on the hillside gave him elevation as he picked up speed, and he launched himself feet first towards the tree knot.
For a moment when he landed, it was as if he had shocked the tree. Everything stopped moving, and then as Zander drew his next breath, two things happened. Every branch seemed to draw away from him, preparing to crash into his precarious perch on the tree. And the tree, overbalanced by the force of his impact, continued to tilt backward, gravity helping the thick trunk and broken limbs towards the ground. There was a loud sound of crunching, which Zander thought must be the broken roots giving out under the pressure of the tree falling.
“Jump!” The soldier screamed at him, her eyes wide as the tree, heedless of it’s impending crash, began to strike with it’s many branches. Zander turned towards her, and threw himself back up the hill. He landed in a tangled of limbs, his breath knocked from his chest as he rolled to a seated position.
They watched as the tree crashed and thrashed it’s way down the hillside. When it finally came to a stop, Zander panted, catching his breath. But the tree did not rise, even after several minutes. He turned his head as the soldier pulled her foot out of her boot, which had lodged in a hole in the ground. Cursing, she reached down and dug the boot out, then sat on a downed tree to slide it back on.
“Are you hurt?” Zander asked, patting his own legs and arms to check for injuries. The hot flush had mostly left him, though his heart still pounded through his head. He had many scratches, and dried blood on his knuckles from his attacks on the roots of the tree, but overall he was undamaged. There were shards of wood in his hair, and he gingerly pulled a few of the longer pieces loose.
“I’m fine. Nothing that will stop me from marching, anyway.” She stood, and tested her ankle, grimacing a little. Then she stepped towards him, her hand held aggressively out. “My name is Jules. Marion Jules, call me Jules though. Thanks for your help.” Jules seemed nervous, as if she were not often alone with a stranger in the woods. Zander smiled, brushing his hands down his legs as he stepped towards her.
“Zander. How could I not help? That thing came out of no where.” Her hand was too firm, but he didn’t let it show on his face. Adrenaline still pounded in his ears, and he hadn’t lost any of his fellows today. If it comforted her, he could take the pressure.
“Have you ever seen anything like that?” Jules’ face had paled, and her eyes showed white in the fading light.
“No.” Zander looked grimly towards the broken pile at the hill’s base. “The forest here has never had a… thing, like that.” He pulled his hand loose from her firm grasp. “How did you find it?”
“We were on patrol, and it was just standing in the clearing. We didn’t realize it was alive, or could move. We walked right beneath it, and it swung, like a wind drove it alive. That’s when I noticed the roots were just lying across the ground. It heaved itself up, and well…”
The sound of a crash echoed through the forest, and both spun to glance downhill. Zander heard Jules gasp, and at first didn’t see a cause. In the growing gloom, it was hard to see across the forest. Zander frowned, wondering where the fallen tree was. Had they shifted positions that much, that he could no longer see the creature for all the branches in the way? But no, they hadn’t.
The forest moved around the creature, and Zander was finally able to grasp what he saw. There were three more creatures in the clearing.