The forest itself was rather more idyllic than I expected, from everyone’s warnings. Birds chirped in the distance, sunlight played through the pines of the trees, and everything had that fresh scent of life, that can only be found in nature.
The villagers didn’t let their guards down, however, so neither did we. I knew better than anyone that there was nothing stopping a peaceful scene from becoming a violently dangerous one in the space of a heartbeat.
Jack, the swordsman, led the way—over my protests—with Harold staying about twenty feet behind with the rest of us, bow drawn, strung, and ready.
I had to admit that we did make good time. Jack was a good pathfinder, spotting dead falls, exposed roots, and other dangers of the forest and showing us the easiest ways around them. Harold proved to be just as competent an archer as I suspected; at one point in the middle of the day, apparently at random, he notched an arrow, pointed it at the sky, and shot down a hawk in the sky the rest of us hadn’t even noticed. With his hunting, we didn’t even have to dip into the rations we had packed for the trip.
It was our third day into the forest that things started getting strange.
The rest of us walked up to the edge of a small stream to find that Jack had already stopped, and was observing some sort of small hole in the ground a few feet away.
As the rest of us refilled our water skins, I called over to the scout. “What have you found over there? Food, animal tracks?”
Jack shot me a glare, and Harold, sensing something amiss, walked over to join him. The archer cursed under his breath when he realized what he was looking at. “God dammit..how fresh is this?”
“A day,” Jack was saying as I walked up as well.
I frowned at what I saw. As far as I could tell, it was just a hole in the ground, a couple feet wide and deep.
“Roark!” I called. “Tell me what I’m looking at over here!”
The soldier joined me and quickly knelt down, observing the hole.
“…nothing,” he said after a moment. “It’s just a hole caused by a tree uprooting.”
“Does that mean a storm passed by here?”
“Not really.” He indicated the rest of the forest with a wave of his hand. “We would be seeing more damage if that was the case. I would imagine this was just an old tree that could no longer support its own weight.” He picked up some of the dirt from the hole with his hand. “See how the soil is moist and loose? This happens a lot to trees near water sources. The ground just can’t hold them up.”
“Then where is it?” Jack grunted, his tone making it clear he didn’t put much stock in my subordinate’s analysis.
Roark, at least, didn’t take offense. “Where is what?”
“The tree,” Jack deadpanned. “If it just fell over, it would still be here. Where is it?”
“Uh…” the soldier looked around. “Maybe someone carted it away.”
“There are no drag marks,” the swordsman pointed out. “And no recent rain to wash away the tracks.”
“I assume you’ve an alternative theory?” I asked, failing to keep the disdain out of my tone. I knew I needed to keep an open mind, but these two insisted on looking down on us as ignorant rubes.
“Yes.” He stood and started off deeper into the forest, once more fulfilling his duties as our scout.
He didn’t elaborate.
I sighed again, and signaled to the rest of the team to follow the blond boy. It didn’t take long to pack up, since we had only been stopping for a moment, but by the time we were off again, he was already twenty or thirty feet in front of us again.
Before Harold could get too far ahead of me, I put my hand on his shoulder. “Please. Just explain what you think happened.”
He shrugged. “Look, Jack can be hard to deal with, but you wouldn’t believe us anyway, so what’s the point? Just follow us, do as we say, and we’ll all get out alive. You don’t need to know the details.”
“Perhaps we don’t need to,” I admitted. “But knowledge is power. And no matter what you say, I’m bound by honor to my king to take you to your village. We’re not going to abandon you.”
The young archer looked me over for a moment, then nodded. “Fine. I believe that, at least.” Then he sighed. “The truth is, it’s a dire pine. A dire Scots pine, to be precise.”
I blinked. “What?”
“Like the dire horses we warned you about. Animals sometimes go dire, and so do plants. Thankfully, it’s far more rare for plants, but it still happens.” He pointed back the way we came. “It probably happened last night, or the night before. The tree gets infected—don’t ask me how, we still don’t know—and gets twisted into a monster. It ripped itself out of the ground while it was thrashing in pain, then walked off.”
“A tree,” I said. “Walked off.”
Harold didn’t seem concerned by my obvious disbelief. “Yes. I’ve never seen a dire pine before, but I hear they’re easier to deal with than dire oaks. Not that we want to deal with it, mind, but we should be able to handle it if we should encounter it. Just stay behind us.”
Roark stepped up on the archer’s other side. “So…Jack is tracking it? This…tree?”
“No,” Harold assured him quickly. “Like I said, we don’t want to deal with it if we don’t have to.” He pointed off to the left. “The pine headed that way, probably heading for the lake. Unless it backtracked for some reason, we shouldn’t cross its trail.”
“The tree’s trail,” I echoed dumbly.
“Told you that you wouldn’t believe us.”