Leopold shook his head. “It didn’t do him much good,” he said, indicating the crumpled shape on the ground. He looked up at the horse, patting it on the side of the neck. “If it’s all the same, I’d rather stay with you lot.”
The carthorse breathed out heavily through its nostrils. Glancing sideways at Pieter, Leopold seemed to have a thought.
“You know, it might not be able to carry us all,” he said, “but it might know the way back. Here,” he said, motioning for the reins. Leading the horse clear of the others, he gave it a sharp slap on the rump.
It didn’t need telling twice. Putting its head down with its ears flat against its head, it barrelled away into the trees. The thunder of hooves died away into the dripping greenery, leaving a straight track of broken twigs and trampled undergrowth behind.
Pausing for a moment, Leopold looked left and right at his companions. Extending a hesitant finger in the direction the horse had run, he waited a moment more.
One by one, they followed the new-made trail into the trees. The crows waited until they were gone to descend on the cold, blood-stained object they had left behind.
They were running in circles. Pieter was sure of it; the blighted woods surrounding the barrow and its boneyard could not possibly have stretched this far the last time they had come this way. Out of breath, he leaned against a tree-trunk: the bark came away under his hand in soft, rotten flakes. Overhead, the rain still hissed in the leaves.
“Hey!” came Leopold’s shout from up ahead – enough to make him jump. The young man’s head appeared over a thicket of nettles. “Hey, I think we found it! The track!”
Pushing forwards, Pieter joined the others. For a moment, he couldn’t see what it was that had caught their attention. Then, he saw the trio of squat little stones, sitting unassumingly beneath their cloak of tangled undergrowth. The Watchers.
He found his eyes drawn uncomfortably to the exposed carving on the foremost stone. Those branching antlers no longer seemed to have anything in common with Taal, or any god of men – instead, Pieter saw in its round belly and wide-mouthed smile an uncanny resemblance to the gibbering things that had come spilling from the disintegrating tree. His eyes strayed treacherously to the other two stones, still swathed in their cloaks of bracken, and wondered what carvings they might bear.
The others were already on the move again. The track that Suster had brought them on was barely discernable, nothing more than a slight depression in the forest floor. Still, the deep hoof-prints of the cart-horse showed them it had gone this way, and that was better than nothing.
Ithelus was far from sure they were still on the track. It seemed like hours since they had left the standing stones behind. The trees grew taller and greener here, the forest floor less choked with thorns and mud. Still, the forest was the forest – and Ithelus had no idea where they were.
Neither did the others. Faulebrand was trying to act as if he had a clue, but the last time they had seen the horse’s prints was far too long ago for comfort. The grey clouds masked the sun, so that he could hardly even tell how long they had been running.
Still, Ithelus was in the lead, and that meant he had to keep moving. They couldn’t stop, not here. Not until they were out of these dripping shadows. Maybe not even then.
Predictably, his sickle was well-suited to cutting through the tangles of undergrowth that sometimes blocked their path. Hewing his way through a tangled screen of the stuff that grew around the base of a particularly broad and ancient oak, he stopped and squinted in a patch of unaccustomed light.
A narrow stream rushed and gurgled in front of him. It was swollen and muddy with rainwater, but even so that barely made it more than knee-deep at its deepest. The gap it forced between the trees was admitting the thin, grey light of the sky along with a steady drizzle of rain, pricking the surface of the water with rippling patterns of raindrops.
Over on the left, a tumbled bank of mossy boulders rose up to form the steep shoulder of an earthy ridge, stretching some distance in either direction. The stunted trees that had grown on top of it had tied the precariously-stacked stones together with a network of roots; the stream had long since eroded away the earth that must once have made the mortar for their wall. Straight ahead, the trees stretched away on a slight slope: was it his imagination, or were they thinning slightly?
On the right, there came a tremendous splash
. Stumbling to a halt behind Ithelus, the others looked immediately in the direction of the sound. A huge, armoured horse had just burst out of the treeline and into the stream.
Its rider pulled it to a sharp halt. There was fresh blood on its barding, running away in thin streaks as the spray of the stream washed the metal clean. As the rushing water settled, it came up only to the level of the horse’s knees.
The knight was looking straight at them. He was perhaps a hundred yards upstream.
Some visual references.
The tree by which Ithelus stopped.
The bank of boulders
(steeper slope/bigger boulders than in picture)
These are just to give you a vague picture. Refer to the text for specifics.
The big tree is right next to you; the bank of boulders is about 12 yards away on the other side of the stream.