Leopold didn’t need telling twice. Frightened eyes searching the broken undergrowth where the black horse had passed, he turned and headed into the trees. Any direction would do, as long as it headed away from the clearing and that trampled path.
Pieter and Ithelus were creatures of the city, and Leopold was not much better. Without guidance, they stumbled blindly through rain-slick undergrowth, stumbling over hidden roots and catching their clothes in tangling thickets of thorns. The character of the forest had changed, the hoarse rustle of the canopy a constant accompaniment to the drumming rain. The trees loomed vast and dark, their crooked boughs swaying in the wind in unsettling kinship with the thing they had burned.
A sudden slope appeared from under a waist-high carpet of bracken, and Pieter found himself sliding heels-first into a muddy hollow. The last scraps of mist still lingered here, swathing the ground in a rags of drifting vapour – pushing himself back to his feet, he felt something with altogether too many legs scrabble out from under his hand, but saw nothing.
Ithelus dropped down beside him, landing cat-like on his feet. Behind them, Leopold came crashing down the slope, rolling to a clumsy halt in the mud; Illiiya picked her way more carefully down in his wake, watching the fog with untrusting eyes. Somewhere far off to their right, another distant scream echoed through the tree-trunks – scrambling up the other side of the hollow, they redoubled their speed.
Threads of dissipating mist crawled around the roots of the trees, thickest in the depressions between the tallest oaks. Skirting around the edges of such foggy basins, Ithelus began to wonder whether they weren’t running in circles.
Somewhere nearby, crows were squabbling in the trees. Pulling himself up over a bank of tangled roots, Ithelus stopped as he heard another sound – the high-pitched whinny of a horse, dead ahead. Undergrowth was rustling and crackling in the same direction, a dry accompaniment to the cries of an animal in distress...