Part 4: Into The Forest.
Mericc made his way into The Old Forest, sword out and eyes on the alert. At first the going was easy since he was still on the outskirts where the brush was less thick and the trees more spread out, but he knew that this wouldn’t last long, the forest wouldn’t let him off that easy. He also knew that his previous trip into the woods wouldn’t be of much help to him except as a general guide, the trees and the paths tended to shift from one place to the other or disappear entirely, leaving the unwary and unprepared wanderer lost and confused. Many the time on his past visit Mericc remembered trying to double-back only to find a solid wall of trees or undergrowth blocking what was once a clear path. Still, he had a vague notion of the general layout of the forest and planned to make his way towards it’s heart, the Withywindle river.
The river cut through the center of the forest and anyone trying to make their way through would have to deal with it at some point so it was a good place to look for Tom or at least signs that he had passed that way. But there were still some miles before Mericc would reach it in a straight line, and it was uncertain how twisted a path the warrior would have to take to get there. Already the trees were getting thicker around him, dense brush made walking difficult in spots and Mericc was certain that he was tripped up by a low lying root that he was sure he had cleared a moment before. The air grew thicker as he went deeper in and the feeling of someone, or something, watching him became more and more pronounced.
"Just when a hunter would come in handy", Mericc grumbled, but Aqualondo was off chasing his latest object of affection and Tuiliel and Eluridan were off on adventures of their own. As out of his element Mericc was, he would have to do this alone.
A deep fog had settled on the forest and soon despite his best efforts, Mericc had gotten turned around. Dark trees with darker intent stared down at him menacingly, and the air was now thick with tension and foreboding. Mericc found himself turning at every rustle of the leaves and every creak and groan, could sense, more than see that things moved in the shadows, hating anything that intruded upon it’s ancient homeland. Mericc gripped his sword tight, preparing to strike if needed, but how does one fight the very air around you, pressing in with the weight of years of built up anger? He could hear the wind, like whispers in the treetops, the forest was speaking to itself, and it’s words were those of warning and death. A thick branch fell from a nearby tree, almost hitting Mericc, he raised his shield up instinctively but nothing more fell. The trees looked down on him, their carved trunks forming faces cruel and malevolent, he was not welcome here. Roots and undergrowth grasped at him in the dark, their long tendrils seeking the places his armour didn’t protect. He slashed out at them as he could, but their were many tree’s, and their roots were long.
Lesser men would break at times like these, but Mericc wasn’t lesser men. He had fought dragons and trolls, faced certain death in many a battle and managed to bring him and his friends through it alive, he wasn’t about to let a bunch of tree’s get between him and his mission. He kept on, alert but undaunted, let the forest whisper and groan, he would meet it head on if he had too. He made his way in what he hoped was a southerly direction, trying to find a path that would strike the Withywindle and the first leg of his journey. Soon he felt the air grow less dense and the sense of dread and watchfulness pass, the way became a little easier, the forest had spent it’s first stroke and Mericc wondered what the second would be.
After a while the land started to slope downward and then ended in a sheer cliff of rock, carved through long years by the thing Mericc had been searching for, he had found the Withywindle. There it stood below him, as ancient as the forest around him, bathed in the soft light that managed to trickle down from the treetops. It was almost green from all the lichen that clung to every stone, and hundreds of water lilies floated on it’s surface giving the river and almost ethereal quality to it. The warrior made his way down a rough hewn and treacherous pathway to the edge of the waters. He had seen no sign so far of anyone else traveling through the forest and hoped that he wasn’t already too late. Mericc looked up and reckoned by what little light he saw that he didn’t have that many hours of daylight left and he didn’t like the prospect of being in the forest after dark.
Mericc searched along the north bank of the river, looking for any sign of the lost Tom. It was difficult work, the forest canopy allowed very little light to see by and the centuries of fallen leaves and bracken made finding tracks of any kind a struggle. He hoped the search would yield up something, the idea of returning to the bad patches of wood further north didn’t thrill him and he was even less enthusiastic about returning to Adso’s empty-handed. He pushed on, he was bound to come across something if he looked long enough, though in places like this, that something didn’t always become something you wanted to find. This was one of those occasions.
Looking up from the river-bank, Mericc found that the river had taken him to a wide glade, the waters of the river collecting themselves into a wide shallow pool. In the center of the pool was the large husk of an old oak tree. Only the bottom trunk was left, but it was clear that it had once been a mighty tree. Mericc went to investigate, such a dominant landmark might have drawn young Tom to it, and anyways, the river seemed to end here and Mericc had to decide his next move. As he made it to the trunk and started to look around a low growling sound told the warrior that Something had found him.
It was a large bear, and yet like no bear Mericc had ever seen before. It’s fur was shaggy and unkempt, it’s hide ripped and torn with various gashes and bald patches, and it’s eyes glowed with an evil red light. What foul arts had twisted such a terrible form Mericc didn’t not know and didn’t really care, the bear approached the warrior, it’s teeth bared, it’s gaze intent on the prey before it. Mericc planted his feet, shield held in front of him, sword prepared to strike, other bears materialized from other parts of the glade’s edge and soon they had Mericc caught in a ring of death. His back was to the ancient oak, the bears approached slowly, they knew he had nowhere to go.
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