The ground was black with mud. A sucking, grasping abyss that clung to the traveler's boots to pull them it seemed to some unknown world below. Eastern Vrettonia had not been kind to the two, both of which had gravitated to one another for protection if not comradeship. Sylvaine the outcast had little better to do, and everything to gain to follow the strange Caelic man, Cillian, across the Heathric river into the dreaded Blackwood. Riches and legends abound were said to be located within the shadowed depths of that accursed wood. Firstly, of course, they needed to cross the river. No easy feat it seemed, unless they wished to walk south about a hundred miles. For the city of Greybridge lay between them and the Blackwood, and there was a toll to cross the bridge the city was named for. What's more, they weren't the only ones that wished for sanctuary. The refugees milling about them hacked and coughed, muttering to themselves. Behind them a child cried, barely audible over the whipping wind. Not a cold wind, but it came from the north where no wind was warm.
The two were wrapped in what clothing they had, now with a decision to make. Before them, the walls that led into the city of Greybridge. To their south and north, the fast flowing waters of the river Heathric flying southwards like a fleeing banshee, tugging at the roots of trees and drowning the occasional tired animal. Perhaps there were black market runners or less than reputable people they could find to ferry them across elsewhere, though that would be less than cheap. Likely better to take the tolls on the city bridge...perhaps...
It had rained hard that morning, waking the two up from their precious slumber in the small Flontane Forest they had traversed the previous three days. Now all that was left of the weather was the smell of ozone and the stink of sweaty peasants flocking at the gate, which was just now opened before their eyes. Steel graters and groaning wood uttered audibly over the crowds of serfs and poor, revealing twenty men; greyguard they were named, holding halberds and extending them at the ready. The peasants leaped back, afraid at the sudden posture of the soldiers.
A man with a dark mustache and a wide brimmed, plumed hat stepped past the armed guard. He had a square jaw, as if some god sculpted him a bit too on the nose. Unrolling a parchment, he produced a quill pin.
"Greybridge is open to all who seek refuge or passage, if they are willing to pay the toll...certainly ten Lordlings is not too much for strong walls, eh?"
It had been four days since she had passed Durgony’s northern border and entered the Blackwood. She took no horse and traveled with no companion, as the road Mari traversed was narrow and uncomfortable. The warrior could barely keep her pack from the dirt and grime of the forest, and if she wasn’t young and fit the road would have perhaps been too treacherous. The Blackwood was an unforgiving place, even if one did not count on the dangerous beasts that prowled its depths. The trees were so thick their roots ripped at the very earth in a contest of resources.
She now found herself at the crest of a large gulley, an open wound in the midst of the forest around her. Her road lay across it; the pathway even visible to her from where she stood, twenty meters away. It seemed like an entrance to the fey realm, with Rán giving her one last obstacle before she made it into the Blackwood proper. The boughs and canopies of the trees almost seemed to reach out from behind to pull her back in, looming over the embankment of the drop like grasping hands. Roots and the odd weed stuck out of the wet ground that sloped into the gaping gulley, but what would give anyone pause was still yet below.
Water pooled around the murk at the bottom, and half caked in moist earth was the corpse of a massive humanoid. Yellowish skin and gaping maw with blood heavily stained on its blunt teeth and ripped lips. The huge thing had to have been twice as tall as the half-elf, and perhaps six times as heavy. Flies clung to its corpse, though the fact it lay in the mud and had not sunken any deeper showed there were no endless holes at the bottom. However, in whatever way it had died, it wasn't any fall that done it in. In its side was a fearsome gash, now blackened from exposure to the sun for Sulimo knew how long.
Perhaps there was a way around the gulley, if she clung to the trees and did not mind taking a few good hours to move around and find her way back to the path. Luckily the decline was no pit, and if she felt it worthy to risk she would be able to move across relatively unharmed, provided she did not fall and break a limb.
Kyiriniae'aea was a warm light amidst the gloom of the forest, for she walked amid trees that dwarfed any normal oak or birch. The trunks were truly massive, their branches so giant they could perhaps house a noble griffon or younger drake seeking a home. There was ample room to walk between the living pillars of ages past, though for such titans it was still far too close than what one might expect. Upon her feet was soft grass, dark green under the palpable tenebrosity. There was little doubt as to why the men of Andred found this forest cursed, for there was a hint of magic in the air even if one were to look past the strange quality of the wood.
Having left the hamlet of Gladestone in a haste, Kyra had managed to escape pursuit in the Blackwood, and had spent merely a day in the presence of the primeval forest. Her elven eyes and keen ears had picked up a myriad of sounds; a boar once or twice, and a team of wolves. She had even hid from some unknown wilderness beast. A giant, lumbering monstrosity she had only caught a glimpse of hours ago, making its way northwest away from her. Whatever it had been, it could flatten a townhouse with ne'er any true effort, and it was clear it had been running from something further within the wood.
But as of now, there had been little in the way of news or interaction, which was likely fortunate. The lady Gildenston had not enjoyed her husband becoming besotted with Kyiriniae'aea, and the Elf had escaped from being hung just in time. But what to do for now? Alone in a strange wood with little to eat or drink. That is, until she saw she was not the only light in the darkness of the Blackwood, for a fire suddenly sprang up in the distance, between two of the keep-sized trees.
Luckily for her, the forest was not just giant trees, but filled with copses of bushes and smaller saplings that had inadvertendly kept her presence hidden. Any thoughts of whoever it was being friendly, however, were dashed, when she saw the dark iron armor of those that huddled around the newly kindled flame. Perhaps they were manner of goblin or orc; three of them there were, laughing and speaking in a hideous tongue just under a gnarled, uprooted tree. They seemed to be celebrating some kind of victory, or perhaps they were just happy to find a place of solitude.
A fourth, the smallest one, seemed to be putting up a spit for them to cook something on. The very thought of cooked meat over a fresh flame would make anyone's mouth water. Whatever it was they were about to feast upon, the creature huddled over it and Kyiriniae'aea could see the jerks of its movement through its armor. It almost looked as if the monster was killing whatever they had now, but it had yet to complete its grisly task. For the thing then raised their meal over his head in triumph.
Within its grasp was a human child, crying.