Vol. 1 Escape
The Forbidding Forest
By Kenneth Mulholland
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Copyright 2002 Kenneth Mulholland
The woods folk were astir before first light, and Corin awake and alert
When Finikin blinked the sleep away from his eyes, he found Corin
standing by the door, silhouetted against the sombre grey of the
The wind had dropped, and rain passed, leaving the stockaded yards
puddled and muddy. Smoke rose from the chimneys of cabins, and a cock
crowed, flapping his wings where he roosted at the entrance of the loft
over the barn in which Tocky the donkey was housed. All about that
man-made clearing, the forest loomed; the trees, still heavy with rain,
bending inward, as if to engulf the open space from whence they were
'We'll take a bite of breakfast afore we set out,' said the Kettler,
splashing water from a tin basin, given him by Anser, across his face
and wiping it dry. Already eggs were sputtering and bread toasting above
the coals on the hearth. Branikin, dressed in a great cloak of leather,
was pulling on boots and laughing with his children as they scuffled
amongst their bedding; reluctant to leave the warmth.
'I shall be glad to be away from here,' said Corin. And then, hastening
on, he added, 'only because I fear for the safety of all.' He shook
his head in amends. 'Mistake me not. I am grateful, and so shall be,
without the chance of repayment. It is simply that I bring a danger upon
any that I encounter, even so far from . . .' he paused, fearing to
'That be understood a' ready,' said Fin gently. 'I . . .we believe in ye,
young master. But have a care to where you would flee; Forbidding Forest
may keep you from those who search, yet worse than they await beneath
those eaves. Bide with The Jug and Kettle Man; I and my folk will take
you under the trees, and there ye should hide until time is right t'
come out again. Bran will give you work o' some kind, have no fear, and
here will be safe enough, when those who search have given up.'
For answer, Corin merely turned to the Kettler, smiling, though his eyes
held a dark depth wherein lay a certainty of what he must do. His gaze
fixed upon Finikin, so that the tinker felt suddenly stripped naked, and he
found himself again awed by something he did not understand.
'Well Master, if it be decided by you, then there's no more to say on
it,' he muttered, looking away to where Anser had set food and drink out
Breakfast over, the woodsmen, Finikin and Corin, assembled on the high
veranda. Umble and Rejus were amongst them, as were Ohen, Garb and
Niggan; the latter three appearing a little tired from their relief
vigils through the night, though no less merry, it seemed, to be off to
'Anser has packed ye a few morsels o' food and the like,' said Branikin,
offering Corin a bulging sack. 'Enough for five or six days, if you go
Corin nodded his thanks and slung the bundle over his shoulder, along
with that containing his weapons.
'There be all ye need t' get ye through; no matter if ye stay safe
within the outer limits, or head toward the mounts,' added Anser, from
where she stood in the doorway, her children clasped around her waist.
'And mind this much, young master; take care when ye drink o' the water.
Some running streams be clear and fit, but pools and soakage are nay
safe. Mayhap we will see ye again, when danger is passed. Come back and
welcome; tho' strange t' us ye seem, my dear husband here would give you
fair days' share for fair days' work.'
And Corin was aware, as he followed Bran and the other woodsmen, that
Anser and many of the womenfolk looked out at their going; and too, the
children watched as they played and jumped amidst the puddles on that
early morning, warming themselves with hopping games. Dogs barked,
winding amongst the legs of the foremost, eager to roam beyond the
bounds of the stockade: Pad, Rags, Chaser and Briddy, Bran's own,
leading the bunch.
Once outside, the animals forged a short way ahead, though kept in check
by the short whistles of the men, who began to sing as they walked. It
was a simple, rustic song, more of a chant, Corin thought, but their
voices were cheery and somehow dispersed his fears of what lay before
him, and indeed, that behind.
'Ho hey ho, a rollicking o.
A rollicking, jollying, frolicking o.
With seedling and axe to the woods we go,
to bring them down, and watch them grow.
Ho hey ho, a frolicking o.
We'll chop and reap, and plant and sow.
And never fear of any foe,
will halt us as we rollicking go.
Ho hey ho, a rollicking o.
The answer's always yes, not no.
New trees dug in, up will grow.
that we might hew, as on we go.
Ho hey ho, a frolicking o.
Though there be times of want and woe,
we work our way along and so,
ho hey ho, a rollicking go.
Growing up for fire's glow,
our work is always fast, not slow.
Ho hey ho, a rollicking o;
a frolicking, jollying, rollicking o.'
They followed the same wheel-rutted road that Fin had taken to reach the
woodsfolk on the previous night, until they came to a turning-point;
almost hidden amongst the old yews, that led off between them, north and
west. Many of the trees, Corin noticed, were young and flourishing along
that path where they wandered, and he also noted that the dogs held
closer to their masters than earlier.
The deeper they went, even amongst such new growth, the less easy became
the hounds; so that by the time they reached a clearing, open to the
sky, where sprouted scores of saplings rising upon a knoll, they were at
heel. Then, as if unleashed, the dogs sprang away, sporting and leaping
between the knee-high trees and the stumps of those, cut down before. At
that, even the woodsmen brightened again, savouring the fruits of their
own handiwork spread before them, with the backdrop of foothills all
thickly wooded in old, gnarled oaks.
'Well Fin, what do you think? We've done some since last ye saw the West
Holt,' said his brother, pointing his axe toward the wide space graced
by new growth.
'Indeed you have,' laughed the Kettler. 'At this rate you'll mow down
all Forbidding Forest in a lifetime or three.'
'However long, we don't mind,' said Umbel. 'This is our bit o' the
forest now. We planted it.' And there was pride in his words.
'You know friend,' rejoined Fin, slapping Umbel's back, 'one day, when I
be finished tinkering, I am for coming home. Mayhap I'll build a cabin up there here; who knows?'
'It'll needs be well tamed afore that,' muttered one of the men, whom
Corin did not know.
Branikin drew Fin and Corin aside, as the others, led by Umbel and old
Rejus, climbed the gentle slope where patches of yellow wild flowers
sprang up, there to begin spading and planting.
'We have a fair enough morn before us,' he said, staring toward the
northern, mist hung borders of the great forest. 'Like as not, we would
have stayed at home all the same, but for yer sake, Master Corin.
Winter's on us, work done this season. After today, we come no more to
the Holt till spring. Take my advice, and keep close t' the edge of the
forest. Roam too far, and ye'll lose yourself,' and turning to both Fin
and Corin, he ended; 'my brother knows enough of these wilds to take you
a short way. Tread wary, and farewell.'
Once after, Corin turned to look back to where the woodsmen laboured
upon the brow of the slope, there singing; 'Ho hey ho, to watch them
grow,' floating on the faint breeze. Then he set his gaze toward the
dark ranks of the trees, as he and The Jug and Kettle Man strode
forward, in company with two of Bran's dogs.
'Ah! dear Bran does na' trust me to find the way there and back again,'
chuckled the tinker. 'Sends a pair of his own to guide and guard.
Right-ho lads, off we go,' and so saying, he stooped to pluck a stick
from the deep grass and send it spinning. With a yelp, both were away
in pursuit, whilst Fin began a made-up version of the woodsmen's song.
'Ho hey ho, Forbiddingly o,
to find the path and lose yer foe.
I'll get ye there as soon as I can,
for dingling dell, I'm the Jug and Kettle Man!'
They were now quite close to the first of the straggling, twisted trees,
where began the real depths of the old forest. Indeed, as the pair
caught up with the dogs beneath the eaves of gnarled oaks, Rags and
Chaser suddenly halted, sniffing the air uncertainly. For a moment,
Corin thought that the animals were simply afraid to enter further; yet
when they turned their shaggy heads to catch the wind, staring in the
direction of the woodsmen, he and Fin followed their gaze. To Corin's
dismay, he saw a group of riders spurring up the curve of the hillock
toward those working at its summit.
'They be the same out of Ways End,' whispered Finikin, motioning Corin
after him. 'Hist, Rags, Chaser; come on boys! Bran will keep them busy
awhile afore they hit our road. By then we'll be well inside. Horses
don't like these parts overmuch.'
And so the dogs, Fin and Corin, hastened off between the shadowy trunks,
the sounds of their passing strangely muffled amongst the rotting leaf
After a time, beyond Corin's judgement, they came across a narrow path;
worn by the tread of unknown feet.
'Animals use this mostly, though my folk come in too,' muttered Fin,
casting about to get his bearings. 'Aye, here. There are crossings this
end. Mark you them and don't be fobbed. Sometimes these ways get mixed
up if ye don't mind.'
True to his word, there were other overgrown paths branching off this
way and that, and the occasional burble of water hidden amongst the
ferns and bracken. Roots curled and crawled across the floor of the
forest, and knotty branches stooped to crowd the dimness before them. It
was drier within than Corin had expected, yet upon looking up toward the
faint light filtering through the leafy mantle above, he realised that
even winter's heavy rains would hardly penetrate such close growing
'Perhaps that's a part of the reason why few ever come here,' whispered
Fin, guessing Corin's thoughts. 'Be it blowing a gale or pouring fit to
wash ye away, here inside is mostly still and dry; as if things never
change. As if Forbidding Forest makes its own rules, apart from all
outside. Gives me the creeps, it do.' He shook his head in a puzzled
fashion and trudged on until the dogs halted; tails tucked under rumps,
eyes showing the whites and teeth bared in silent snarls.
'Here is far enough,' said Fin, kneeling between the two. 'Even this
bold pair will go no further, not unless we carry 'em. Listen. Do ye
Corin listened for a long breath, before saying, 'No, nothing.'
'Not a peep, is there. Just the trees hovering. Away above us day pokes
betwixt them, but nary a bird, a chirp sounds. It's unnatural. Animals
that do dwell here must go about on tippy-toes,' Fin said, standing, a
hand on each dog's neck. 'Well, I reckon this is where we part company,
The Kettler's face, though deep in shadow, held a troubled look. 'I had
some hopes that ye might change yer mind after seeing a mite o' this
place; but ye haven't.'
'No, friend. I must seek a path through to the mountains,' Corin
answered, smiling at the Jug and Kettle Man. 'Yet I shall not forget
your kindness, or that of those at Ways End, and your own kin and kith.
I tell you truly, but for they and you, I should have met a grim fate.'
The Kettler smiled in turn. 'I believe you. Only someone extremely desperate
would dare these ways...that, or a madman....'
He faltered a moment, whilst the other stood before him, unmoved. 'If we are questioned about you,'
he continued in some haste, 'all that we can tell is no more than we know: next to nothing.'
'And I doubt you will be punished for giving shelter to a stranger in
this wild end of the realm,' said Corin. 'That is why I cannot say more.
Leave me as a mystery, a madman, if you like; but forget not this much,
right was done by you and yours. No matter what is said after me.'
The light between them seemed to grow dimmer, even as these last words
were spoken; a trick of the forest perhaps, or maybe because of
deepening cloud above the thick, green mantle. Yet still Fin lingered,
whilst the dogs whined and the trees stirred, groaning amongst their
highest branches, where unfelt winds moved them.
'Here,' said the Jug and Kettle Man at last, reaching amongst the folds
of his garb, 'I have a parting gift; not much, but wear it if you will.'
He produced a felt cap, peaked and plumed with a bright feather, and
held it forward.
In silence, the stranger took it, setting it upon his head; and for a
moment, a gleam appeared in his eyes so that spoken thanks were not
'Well, at this rate,' Finikin went on, 'winter's gloom will have the
dogs and I homing in twilight, if we don't pick our paths right and get
lost ourselves. Follow the way ahead to a wide clearing. On the far side
o' that ye should find three tracks. Left one comes out again at
forest's edge, close to Ways End road. The other forks go further into
Forbidding, though how far, afore becoming overgrown, I don't know.' He
took a pace backward and the dogs curled about his knees, eager to be
gone; then, without another word, the Kettler turned and made off into
the gloom, down the faint-lit road that led to the West Holt, and thence
beyond to the warmth of cheery fires.
Alone, not for the first or last time, Corin remained motionless;
listening, adjusting his senses to the faint sigh of the breeze
somewhere amongst the topmost sweeps of the trees far above. On the
ground, nothing moved, before or behind, and yet he had the sensation of
some vague, pulsing being; the trees themselves? Did their sap rise and
flow, throbbing through root-veins and drooping arms, so that they
seemed to gloat around him, crowding in menace? Shaking these thoughts
and images from his mind, he began walking with resolute stride along
the winding, leaf-damp aisle. Through piled rubbish of seasons' drift he
strode, following that bleak track, until at last he ventured into an
open space, where threatening black of storm clouds hovered.
Upon the other side, Corin discovered the triple tracks, and chose the
right-hand fork. Later, toward the end of afternoon, he found himself
struggling through twisting vines and clinging, sticky greenery. With
the aid of his sword he cut a stout staff to aid his travels, using it
to push back the screen before him whilst he chopped away with the
Once, not long before nightfall, he came to a parting of the trees and
saw ahead an expanse of still water, surrounded by reeds. In the
shallows, a pair of fallow deer were taking their eventide sip; and he
watched, delighted, until they caught sight of him and timidly vanished
into the thickets.
Corin too, quenched his thirst, feeling safe to do so after observing
those creatures of the wilds, and decided to halt there until morning.
In the gloom, he searched for a suitable spot to rest, and discovered an
ideal place at the foot of an enormous tree. Its great trunk reared
upward, huge, knotted branches thrusting out, covered in long, dark
foliage that merged into the night above. At the base of this giant,
amongst the twisted roots that coiled about the soil in all directions,
he found a cleft large enough for him to scramble within; and there he
spent the night, wide awake, listening for any sound of danger. He ate
only a morsel of the food provided by the woodsfolk, feeling in little
need of such, nor sleep. Fire he could have made had he so desired,
for flint and steel were there, wrapped in a strip of leather, and dry
tinder of leaves to hand. But he chose not, satisfied to wait hidden
to any, man or beast, that might chance upon that place.
Later, some time after dark, Corin thought he heard a distant sound;
though what it was he could not tell: howl of wolf, or human voice? The
sound was not repeated, and he settled again, hoping that Fin and his
dogs were safe, and wondering whether the king's men had actually dared
to enter in pursuit and remain in the forest at night.
Morning, if that was what it could be called beneath the layers of the
forest eaves, grew out of seeping mists and swirling forms that resolved
into grey shapes. Colour, the colours of mottled greens and dun browns,
were yet subdued whilst the first, faint light insinuated the canopy of
Corin roused himself and stretched, still holding the sword
he had kept at the ready. About the pool before him all remained quiet
and still, but for the hint of rippling water, where it slid from its
source upstream, and disappeared at the further end beneath feathered
Gathering his few belongings, he turned to take in the slowly revealed
tree towering over him, and to his dismay he knew at once that it was
dying. Gaping cracks and wounds excreted its life sap, and huge galls
hung from trunk and bough, so that the faded beauty of the ancient giant
seemed the more poignant.
Even as disease ravaged its heart, it was yet so tall and stately, so dignified,
that Corin could not help biding a short time longer.
Somewhere, deep within his own being, a chord of
kinship seemed plucked.
'How old are you, and what have you seen? What do you know?' he asked,
his eyes filling to the brim with the sight of that unknown, failing
being before him.
A soft breeze ruffled the branches as he turned away, and it was like a
sigh that spoke of long ago; of birth and youth and growth, and happy
days under clear sky, when the earth was filled with vigour and no taint
lay upon the land whence, from the seed, the old tree had thrust its
Through all that next day, Corin followed the path, whilst it wound
deeper into the forest. Often he halted, seeking amongst the ever
increasing piles of decay and rubbish, built up over untold years, to
find the remains of that vanishing track where it wandered northward. At
length, the path completely lost, he pushed on into the tangle of shrubs
and brambles that covered the forest floor. He hacked a road with the
sword until his arm began to ache from the effort, forcing him to
abandon the stick, thus freeing both hands.
Only the vague hint of sunlight, piercing here and there, told of his
direction. About him, the deformed oaks seemed to crowd, enclosing him
in a gloating, secret stillness. Thorns clutched at him, tearing his
garb, and rank weed wrapped about his legs, clinging so as to trip him.
With firm resolve Corin cut away the prickly tendrils, aware that
patience was needed to overcome such obstacles lest he blunder into
further danger through haste.
And he covered his passing as best he could on the chance that others might follow,
though he saw that horses could not prevail amongst the thickets of dense undergrowth.
Nightfall was almost upon him. He cast about amongst the screen of deepening
shadows for a resting place, there being no reason to wander aimlessly in
the forest after dark, and chose to climb into the branches of a large
Later, hearing what was surely the howl of a wolf, he clambered higher,
hefting his belongings and feeling the way.
No moon lit that long night, but to Corin, wedged in a fork so that even
in sleep he could not fall, there came the soft rustlings and snuffling
of creatures beneath his perch. Toward the first glimmerings of dawn he
awoke out of a shallow doze, limb-sore from his constant, cramped
position. Silence. The yellowed leaves about him hung, limp in that
For a time Corin waited, flexing his arms and legs to regain feeling
and drive out the coldness that had invaded them. All the while nothing
moved within sight, or sounded within hearing. It was as if the forest
lay emptied of any living creature, but for himself. Clasping his
belongings, he slowly descended, skinning an elbow in the doing.
At the foot of the oak he drew the blade and stood there, unmoving as a
stone. His breath misted the air, hovering in the cold.
He took a step.
A grey blur hurled itself toward him; snarling, raking, snapping with
fearsome teeth. They met, the wolf beating him down with the weight of
its body, even as the sword bit through its rough hide.
A squeal, that ended in a dying yelp, resounded through the trees.
Corin struggled free of the animal, reaching for his weapon, his grasp
broken by the savage onslaught. Shaking, he drew the hilt from the
wound, and turned in time to face the mate of the dead wolf, where it
lurked, red eyes ablaze with absolute rage. There was no time for fear
or bravery, no time to guess as to how many of the beasts beset him.
Corin had but a swift glimpse of this gaunt-ribbed foe, stained fangs
dripping, before it flew at his throat, growling out a rage and a
challenge and a revenge all at once.
Locked together, the pair crashed amongst the undergrowth, the wolf 's
foul breath filling Corin's nostrils with a stench of stale blood and
rotting flesh. The sword slipped from his fingers, useless at such close
quarters, and he gripped the creature's throat to ward off the snapping
mouth with both hands. Thrashing wildly, the beast clawing at his body,
Corin could do no more than hang on with all his strength until, with a
desperation dredged from the fear of pending death he threw the wolf off
and twisted to his knees. And even as he so did it was upon him again,
teeth sinking through garments and into his shoulder.
Hard home Corin drove the knife drawn from his belt, the wolf choking
on its own bite, kicking out the blazing flame of life in a rattle and
snarl, determined to inflict pain as it received the like.
Suddenly, it was over. The wolf's head hung gaping into Corin's face,
the tongue twitching, the eyes open and white. Shaking with fear and
shock, he managed to heave his foe aside and struggle to his feet,
mindful of further attack.
Yet none came.
The Forbidding Forest was again still and silent.
Blood trickled down his arm as Corin retrieved the sword and the bundle
containing food, bow and quiver. For one, swift moment he gazed down at
the dead beasts at his feet, and a feeling of sadness, mingled with
relief, swept over him; pity he felt, even for such as those two
gaunt corpses lying amongst the mouldering leaves of time's decay.
'Wolves too struggle for survival,' he muttered, tearing a strip of
cloth from his undershirt to stay the bleeding, and hoping the wound
would not fester.
With trembling legs he made off, again pushing into the resisting
depths, only the dull light from the west-rising sun to guide his feet
Later that same morning, he stumbled upon an outcrop of stones, and to
his surprise, saw that these were hewn and placed in such a way that
they formed some kind of long forgotten, long untrodden causeway,
hidden, for the most, beneath layers of creeping roots and rotting, moss
His curiosity aroused, he determined to follow that ancient road, at
least whilst it led toward the distant mountains beyond the forest. And
so cut a path onward between the encroaching trunks of once mighty oaks,
now past their prime, or stricken by some dreadful blight that
disfigured and maimed them to a point where they appeared like ghostly
visions leering down at him. Their naked limbs twisting over the greyness that seeped from beneath,
coiling through mists of shadow.
It was then that Corin heard the sound of running water in a dell
filled with ferns that dropped away to the west. Leaving the long, lost
road, he ventured toward the rattle of the stream to find it cool and
clear, trickling over blue pebbles where an opening allowed the light
of sky above. Corin dipped his hands into the flow, sprinkling it over
his face, though not daring to take a draft, the words of the woodsfolk
keeping him wary.
After a short space of rest and a mouthful of dried fruit, he took to
the chill runlet, splashing from side to side along a considerable
distance, the better to lose himself from any man or wild creature that
might hunt those forlorn, distant ways.
Late afternoon, he clambered up a steep bank, brushing through briar to
force an entry into the overhanging gloom; and so, whilst night fell and
silence became ever oppressive, Corin again sought the safety of the
trees. Tucked aloft an ash bereft of foliage, but shrouded by other
evergreens untouched by disease, he remained motionless, hearing only
the sighing wind. No creature, bird or beast, had he encountered since
the attack by the wolves, and yet he felt convinced that the
darkness harboured things: creeping, slithering, groping; things
wandering, some aimless, blindly foraging prey, others scenting,
stalking, slipping through all the secret vastness of that great sea of
In the quiet of the last moments before dawn, he was awoken from a
troubled dream by a sound that almost caused him to tumble out of his
lofty hold. It came as an invisible hand might come, to clutch at the
heart with fear of the unknown. No wolf or human throat could make
such sound, such hoarse bellow that curdled the blood in its abrupt
halt, as if gigantic jaws had snapped down, engulfing with utter
Afterward, climbing through the dismal riot of undergrowth, he wondered
if the sound had been only an echo of terror, a phantom within his own
The pale streaks of morning etched out dim, contorted forms before him
that resolved into a tumbled mass of trees, some fallen aslant, others
tilted at drunken angles on the brink of collapse. A fine mist filtered
through the wretched roof of twisted boughs and dense, despairing
leaves, so that the air seemed cloying, suffocating.
Corin could hear his breath, even, he fancied, the thumping of his
heart, as he plunged ever deeper, losing and finding the broken
stone-way over and again until it dwindled beneath bramble thickets
impenetrable to any blade or axe. For a time he stood, gulping the
moisture laden air and staring at the notched sword, useless for such
task, in his begrimed hand. Then he lifted his eyes, and between a gap
where day thinly filtered he caught his first glimpse of the
Tumberimber at so short distance.
The vision almost overpowered him. Close loomed the cliffs, thrown aloft in stark
contrast to the forest. Grey was the stone of them, grey and ever-there;
and peering upward, he saw that they became lost amongst the shrouding
With uplifted spirits, Corin began to skirt the barrier of thorns,
making off in a north-east line where the going offered least
resistance. By nightfall, he told himself, he could be at the foot of
those majestic bastions, and on the morrow he would seek some high pass
and begin to climb.
But the day grew toward an end, and he found himself little advanced.
Before him, the land sloped downward and an unpleasant odour seeped up
to meet him. The further he roved, the worse became that stench, and the
lower sank the going, so that it became no more than slimy mire through
which he waded, each step an effort in the sucking bog. The trees now
were festooned with vines and creepers, and oozed huge globules of
sticky, putrescent sap that fell across his head and shoulders, clinging
and binding into a web about him, so that he began to feel as a fly
might, caught in some vast spider's lair. The trunks and grotesque limbs
and roots became entangled until all merged together, and he had the
chilling feeling of being trapped forever within their grasp as he
squeezed between the boles, squelching underfoot the fleshy leaves of
unknown trees fallen from above.
Light was limited to faint shafts that danced and moved in the dimness
ahead, and the only sound in the dank, deadened air was the soft
plip-plop of dripping liquid. Panting with exhaustion and fear, Corin
paused in an attempt to regain his bearings, and to his distress,
uncertainty tugged at the corners of his mind. Staring with wide, wild
eyes, he saw that all now looked the same. Nowhere was there an
indication of the direction he should take.
Then his gaze fell upon a form squatting motionless in the gloom. It was
that of a huge toad, the size of a full grown hare, and it seemed to be
watching him. Suddenly, it leaped into the darkness and vanished.
Alone again amongst the ghastly shapes that seemed to loom over him,
Corin went forward, constantly hampered by the network of roots and
vines and the sinking slush that sucked at his feet. Evil brooded there,
in the deeps of Forbidding Forest, and it was plain enough why those who
ventured inside seldom returned whole of mind, If they returned at all.
Several times he tried to gain a footing in the trees, but without
success, the trunks were too slippery, and even his blade could not cut
a hold in their leathery skin.
In the dead of night, he was startled from a sleep borne of fatigue and
hopelessness by the shrilling and fluttering of many creatures beating
through the branches. Bats they were, score upon score, rustling and
shrieking on the wind of their wings, to fade into the remote recesses
beyond, leaving him shaken, a cold sweat upon his brow. Mists curled
about him, weaving with ever changing forms, almost like phantoms on the
fetid air, and he wondered if the moon somewhere above Forbidding
Forest might shed the palest beams to allow him some faint sight. Once
more, a terrible moaning howl echoed across the wilderness. Far away it
seemed, though no less shocking, and Corin, helpless in the murk, could
only shrink into the gap amongst snaking roots where he had made his
bed, and wait for morning.
When that came he crawled out, slipping in the foul ooze, his garb and
body soaked and caked in freezing slime. Before he could rise to his
feet, his hands fell upon brittle objects that crumbled and splintered
with the pressure. Almost in a detached way, he realised that he had
broken the rib-cage of a skeleton, human, as best he could make out.
Vines and roots grasped at the bones and twisted through the
sightless sockets of the gaping skull, a breath from his own face. With
a sudden start of horror, he jerked free of the gruesome find to stare
into another face, this one filled with slit-eyed malice!
An arm's length away, the toad regarded him with a hunger that chilled
his very marrow. It was a brute of its kind, sitting above the picked
bones on the torn branches of a rotting tree. And in the swirling mists
which eddied beyond, Corin perceived other like forms, scores of them,
all waiting, gloating; and he knew that they waited for him.
Taking hold of his fears, he drew the sword and stood. There was a
watchful silence, the creatures following his every move, as he stepped
amongst their fat, glistening bodies; and then they launched themselves
Some struck with such force that they almost brought him tumbling amongst
them. Others smote his mouth, his eyes and nose with sickening impact,
their vile stench filling all Corin's senses so that he reeled onward,
fighting them off even as he plunged into pools of black, viscid liquid
that threatened to drag him under.
Blindly, he thrashed clear of the revolting bogs, shaking free the last
of the clutching, clawing creatures, and gasping for air, stumbled
onward to firmer ground. Had it not been for The Voices ringing within
his head, urging him on, Corin might never have found the strength
needed to climb out of that nightmare land of doomed trees and evil
beings, and up into higher ways where day's light filtered fitfully
Eventually, he was able to walk forward without slashing a path, though
weakened from long toil, his whole body racked with pain
and exhaustion. His boots were caked and covered in crusting mud and
trailing creepers. His body, from crown to shanks, was sticky with sap
and slime, and to his dismay, he realised that the bundle of foodstuffs
given him by the woodsfolk had been lost somewhere in the depths behind.
And yet, he was relieved when he glimpsed a thinning of the trees and
the sky beyond. With a low cry, he staggered on until he broke clear of
the last stragglers of the Forbidding Forest, and there stood, swaying
before the raised cliffs that were the tall, grey, sentinel walls of the