Melissa had been waiting throughout the morning. She was good at waiting, though hers was generally a more active form of patrolling along he edges of the Forestheart. Sitting at the low fence surrounding the building was not her favourite thing to do, but she didn’t need touch the forest pressing in on the clearing to feel its anger. If the humans came back it would be along the path she could look into from her position. If they tried to be smart and leave the path, well, then they wouldn’t be coming back.

She didn’t think that they would though. Most of them had a look to them she’d seen before. When a group of humans came to the Forestheart to seek out its fabled riches and had enough of them bristling with arrows that the survivors decided it wasn’t worth their life to press on. Melissa scoffed at the notion of seeking riches in the Forestheart. Not that the forest wasn’t valuable in and of itself, but there was nothing else in there that these humans seemed to value, like the little metal disks. On rare occasions marauders came who seemed to believe the Sisters or the border guards were valuable to them. Capturing rather than killing as they travelled past the ward-offs. Those … met with the Sisters, and what happened to them after was not something Melissa cared to know. Nothing pleasant and no hint of them remained under the trees after the Sisters were done with them. Even memories of these humans were … fading while the Sisters dealt with them. She was told it left the feel of the Forestheart dark and angry for a while, and she imagined that it would be something like she felt from this forest.

She looked at the rim of dark trees at either side of the path, pouting her lips in thought. Those trees wouldn’t want to harm her, but something else would make them. Something was awakening that shouldn’t be, and it would take a while for it to fall back to sleep again. Gradually settling into the ground with the falling red and yellow leaves of autumn. Until then it was hard for this forest to contain it and anybody who approached the edges too closely might not survive to regret it.

The building, the clearing and the paths leading to it were safe though. Whatever it was in them that kept the fabric of the forest broken also made it impossible for the anger to see past the boundary. Melissa suppressed a shudder. She had been very lucky last night to make it through that forest. There was no way she would dare those trees again now she had time to study them and get a good feel of its kearne.

Behind and to her side Brandt stirred. He was not good at waiting. Every few minutes he moved a bit, adjusted his clothes or sighed deeply. Which, given the number of hands the sun had risen above the trees since they had sent the humans and their dead on their way, amounted to a surprising amount of wasted effort.

The pale man, Talya, was around somewhere, but he was even better at remaining unseen than Melissa was. There was something about him that Melissa didn’t like, and it wasn’t the ease and competence with which he killed, but after the initial impression of a fracturing darkness there had been nothing evidently wrong. Just a vague feeling there was more to Talya than she could grasp. Which, all things considered, could be said of all of these men. It wasn’t something she could treat him with suspicion over.

Keri was probably as bad at waiting as Brandt, but he had sensibly decided to wait inside the building. There had been a bit of shouting between the woman who inhabited the building and Brandt, after the humans had left, but Melissa had tuned that out even if apparently the shouting was about her. Keri had initially done the same but eventually stepped in and said something . The woman had finally shut up and allowed Keri back inside. Melissa had appreciated the quiet. Brandt had looked grateful. And after some time snatches of music had come drifting out of the front door. Brandt had further relaxed at hearing that, so that apparently meant good news. That was fair enough as far as Melissa was concerned, because music meant quiet evenings, food and companionship back in the Forestheart too.

Melissa hadn’t cared for the notion to enter the building again. It was cold outside and the sun didn’t do much to change that. But it was still much better than the stifled smelly air inside. She hadn’t intended to be awake to see the humans try to sneak into the room, she simply had been unable to sleep, cut off from the world by that much stone and dead wood. Back home the weather generally was warmer, but cold and rain were not that unusual. She simply had, better, ways of dealing with them. Ways she did not dare try in this forest. So she had spent a miserable sleepless night inside the deadness of the building of the woman, wondering how they could stand it, and saw the first human sneak into room, past what he was warned was the border. He’d been armed and not announced himself, so she had dealt with him like she did with any interloper entering her domain with obvious ill intent. She shot him. It had been dark but there had been enough light from the remnants of burning wood — and how primitive were these men that they needed to burn wood to make light and warmth — that it had not been a terribly difficult shot.

The shot had also served as a warning to Talya not to dismiss her lightly. The pale man had responded by showing her some of his magic. By the time her vision had returned after the blinding flash the fight was over. Warnings duly taken notice of.

In the morning Keri had first given up the pretence to sleep and had provided them all with breakfast. It told her that Keri was not good at waiting either, and that perhaps he too had been bothered by the dead air. Or perhaps it was the death. Thinking back at his reactions Keri had looked more than a little queasy with all the fighting.

And that thought brought her back, again, to something she urgently needed to figure out. Which set of humans had behaved normally? The one who had attacked her and then tried to kill her. The humans who had clearly wanted to kill her in retaliation? The ones who had fought Brandt and that he refused to kill? Or was it Brandt and Keri, and even the woman in the building, who had not wanted to harm her and instead had been trying to protect her? It had not been a difficult decision to let the humans leave shortly after dawn without her. She had never had to deal with invaders who came to capture rather than kill, but her oldest teacher had, and taught her to recognise the signs in human invaders from a distance, so that she might call for aid should the likes of them ever return. It was true that the Sisters would deal with them, but the Sisters never ventured close to the borders unless in an emergency so dire that nobody could imagine it. They certainly would not do so, to come to the rescue of a single foolish border guard who had let herself be captured by mere men. But when last men came to capture, they had magic of their own, to find and subdue a guard even when she was concealed by the branches of a tree. These humans had stared at her the way she was taught to look out for. Certainly the man she had killed had when he burst into her fake bathing pond, and in the morning she had seen something similar, if less intense, on enough of the survivors that she had no intention to get within grabbing distance of any of them.

She didn’t know if she could trust the others though. She was inclined to, and the Goddess had not given her any hint that she shouldn’t. But then she had not felt much in the way of her normal bond. It was still there, that much she could tell, but that presence also was about all it that she could feel. Staying was not on option, so she had to travel with the others at least as far as the borders of this darkened forest. After that she would have to make a choice between trust and travelling through lands she knew little of.

Brandt cut short her musings when he got up and said “Time to leave.”

He walked up to the entrance to the building and shouted Keri’s name into the opening. She shouted back that she was coming, but it took a few minutes before she came from around the building, leading her animal. Which was called a horse Melissa had learned the previous night. Keri called it Snowflake, something that initially had confused her until she understood that it was the name for that particular animal and not for the species. Her confusion had amused the others, and Melissa had tried hard not to resent their amusement at her expense.

Brandt was already impatiently waiting at the start of the other path, leading his horse. If that animal had a name too he hadn’t shared that with her. Talya had appeared seemingly out of nowhere — though from her wet clothes Melissa suspected there was some uneven ground near the entrance of the path the humans had taken that she had hidden in — and waited next to Brandt. Because the path, Keri had warned, could at most allow to walking side by side that left her and Melissa to take up the rear.

“We’ll have to hurry,” Keri warned “if we want to make it out of the forest before dark. Which I really recommend. It likely will start raining again tonight and it is easy to get lost in a pitch black night.”

She looked at Brandt, who was looking back at her over his shoulder, and added “I know you don’t believe me, but I know a lot of tales about this forest. Even if most of it is exaggeration, that still makes it bloody dangerous to try to cross it at night. And after what Talya told me last night, I do not believe any more it is mostly exaggeration.”

“Magic” the big human said, dismissively.

Keri looked like she wanted to say more, but then visibly restrained herself.

Brandt set a clipped pace, faster than Melissa was expecting. With the horses carrying most of the packs it was a pace she thought she could keep up for several hours before she had to rest. Almost immediately after leaving the clearing it became obvious that the idea of riding horses was not going to happen, even if Melissa would have  had any idea how. The worst of the mud might have dried up some since midnight when it had finally stopped raining, but it was still ankle-deep in many places, and worse in some. The horses had trouble keeping to their feet in the slippery stuff. This slowed them down considerably as it was clear that keeping the initial pace Brandt had set would lead to them toppling over and crashing through the dense undergrowth bordering the path and into the actual forest.

“Just keep going,” Keri said, when Brandt started muttering curses “The road will start to climb in a mile or so and it will be rockier.”

That set the pace for the day, muddy stretched that bogged them down, sometimes to a crawl as they carefully navigated the horses, and themselves, through the slippery stuff, interspersed with drier stretches where they could make good speed.

Melissa didn’t mind so much, she was used to long marches, though not quite this hard, but she could see that the effort was wearing on Keri who clearly was not used to walking through occasionally knee-deep mud followed by double timing it over somewhat drier terrain. Ahead of her she could see Brandt and Talya walking sometimes side by side, sometimes behind each other. They were talking but their posture was stiff and betrayed tension between them. Unfortunately the two were also slowly outpacing Keri and her.

“Brandt,” she called out before they could slip out of sight around one of the many bends in the path “Talya. We need to rest. We’re not keeping up.”

That last was not technically true. She could have kept up with the two, but that would have meant leaving Keri behind to struggle by himself. And she was not about to let Keri take the blame alone. It wasn’t his fault that he wasn’t trained, and truth be told, Melissa felt a slight protective urge towards Keri, alike and not alike she would have felt for a hunt-sister. Besides, it was always a good thing to be underestimated until she could figure our if she could trust them or not.

Keri tried to tell that he could continue but Melissa shushed him.

“Unless we are almost out of this forest we are not going to make it before dark.”

She glanced up at the yellowing leaves on the trees. No branches grew over the path — which by itself was enough to tell anybody with eyes to see and a mind to think with, that this was not a natural path they were travelling over — but the trees were so tall that almost no light reached this far down anyway.

“Sun’s lowering. A finger span and a half above the horizon I’d say. We’ve been travelling for three times as much time and we need to rest and to eat something.”

Brandt looked surprised. “We’ve been walking for that long?”

Melissa and Talya nodded.

Talya said, before Brandt could, “Keri, Melissa, sit down and rest. We’ll have a supper. Cold I’m sorry. And then we have to decide whether to push on or make camp here on the road.”

Keri looked alarmed at that prospect and Melissa didn’t like the notion that much better, though she hoped she kept her expression under better control.

Brandt looked at Talya for a moment, his expression too fleeting to say if it was anger or something else. “I don’t know this road well, and neither do Talya or Melissa. So, Keri, any idea how far it still is, and how bad the road will be? We can’t risk this mud in the dark, but you three seem certain we can’t risk the forest in the dark either.”

Keri sighed and looked ill at ease. She thought for a long moment and then answered “We’re past the midpoint but I don’t know by how much. Not enough to make it all the way through before true dark, I’m fairly certain of that.”

She glanced at the dark wall of undergrowth that hemmed them in on both sides, and the yellowing leaves on twisted branches above it, you got anything in that travel pack of yours that can light the way? Torches? Storm lanterns maybe?”

Brandt shook his head “Those are company gear. It’s all on those pack mules we waved off this morning.”

Melissa felt compelled to point out “Talya light makes. Did so last night.”

“That’s flash powder. I can maybe use it to light a fire, maybe. We’d need pitch or oil or something to make a torch.”

“That’s a no then,” Brandt sighed “I got a bit of butter but that’s not good enough for a torch that lasts at least two hours.”

Talya frowned “We’ve got no choice then to make camp within the next hour or so. Hopefully it will be close enough to the edge of the forest that we suffer no worse than a miserable night. Unless those morons do something stupid and draw attention to them.”

Brandt winced at the last remark “Can you two go on for another hour now you’ve had some time to catch your breath, or do you need to ride? Ground is firm enough that we can risk it I think.”

Melissa glanced at the big animals and quickly shook her head “I will manage.” The idea of climbing on top of one of those beasts did not exactly terrify her, but the notion certainly unnerved her enough that she did not want to make the attempt. Keri on the other hand sighed in relief “That would be great” He grinned at Melissa, clearly not fooled by her attempt to hide her nerves.

Before too long they were on their way again. The horse didn’t seem to mind the extra weight of Keri, this surprised Melissa a little, for though it was big, the animal did not look to have such sturdy legs. Apparently looks were deceiving once again, as were so many things of this world of men she had found herself trapped in.

“So, Melissa where from?” Keri asked from above her, interrupting her thoughts.

Melissa looked up, startled by the use of the language of the Sunrise people. Chagrined she realised that she had just confirmed that she, too, spoke that language. Keri’s broad smile showed that he too had noticed. And answering meant revealing that she spoke it well enough to even correct the grammatical mistakes. She pondered her answer carefully, uncertain how much to reveal. Keeping everything about the Forestheart secret, other than where its boundaries were, was deeply ingrained in all border guards. On the other hand, if she ever expected to return home she would have to tell enough for somebody to recognise it and point her in the right direction.

“I come from a forest,” she eventually answered “greater than this”. Her arm gesture encompassed the wall of trees pressing in on the path from both sides, her tone of voice expressed her dislike for those trees.

“My forest is bigger. And sacred.” Seeing the lack of comprehension written clear on Keri’s face she added “Holy? Big important?”

Keri sighed disappointed “Know not place that I. Ask I will travellers out Kingdom”

Melissa hid a smile and the garbled words and mangled sentences. The man sitting casually on top of his horse clearly thought he spoke the language better than he did, and she didn’t know how well he would respond to being corrected. Her earlier experience with telling a human “no” had kind of spiralled out of control and she wasn’t eager to repeat that mistake with this smaller group in whom she now depended to make it out of the lands of men.

“What forest your like is?” was the second question out of Keri’s mouth and Melissa shut up in a hurry. That was not a question that the man needed an answer to.

“It is full of trees.” Melissa replied eventually, and her closed off expression made it abundantly clear to Keri that there would be no further explanation coming. There was no way to hide the fact that this non-answer also meant that there was more to tell that Melissa choose to keep secret.

Keri didn’t press the issue though and turned the conversation to lighter subjects. When she understood how little Melissa knew about the Kingdom and the ways of its people she told a few stories. Stories that, Melissa suspected, would have been songs in her own language. Stories, also, that made only marginal sense to her as most names and places she didn’t recognise, and the actions of these people who Keri described that were largely incomprehensible. It was difficult to figure out how much of that was because of the halting translation, and how much of that was because of these people indeed being this strange. Melissa just tried to remember it all as well as she could. Even if it made not much sense to her now, as she learned more it eventually might.

Even in a broken language and barely understood concepts Melissa found herself occasionally laughing at the more recognisable situations Keri told about. The man was a gifted story-teller that he could paint pictures that vividly using only words from a language he had only the barest grasp of.

“I do not understand,” Melissa said, after listening to a story about a young couple and some kind of misunderstanding between them, that clearly made more sense to Keri than to her. “You speak about men and women all the time. What about a human like him?” She gestured at Brandt, who was only barely visible in the deepening gloom.

Keri almost fell off his horse in surprise. “What mean you? Brandt man is. Talya, you and I, women are.”

Melissa stared up at Keri, trying to figure out if he was serious or making fun of her. He seemed serious but Melissa could not figure out how his remark could have been anything but a joke at her expense.

“I thought that the word hu was your language for strong or big, and wo means young or not growing properly?” she offered hesitantly as an explanation.

“Oh Mercy,” Keri muttered in his own language “how to explain?”

Before he could make an attempt Melissa heard a faint whistling sound. At the same time she felt a growing pressure in her chest. As if something was growing there very quickly. At the same time there was a growing pressure squeezing down on her, and she could see the faintest blue light glow in the mud, like a ribbon. Or, as she watched it grow, like a tear in worn fabric.

“Off horse!” she shouted at Keri. “Now! Bad thing happens!”

When Keri did not immediately reacted — too surprised by the sudden outburst — Melissa grabbed at her leg and dragged until she started to slide down. Melissa didn’t wait to see if he made a controlled descent. The horse was beginning to show signs of panic and she threw her cloak over its head. It tried to rear back but she hung on the head with all her weight, forcing it down on four legs again.

The whistling sound had by then grown loud enough that Talya and Brandt also heard it and the pressure had grown to become uncomfortable on everybody’s ears. The two exclaimed in a different language each, neither of which Melissa understood but both of which sounded like angry curses, as Brandt’s horse began to rear on its hind legs. No doubt about to bolt down the path, if it wasn’t going to blunder into the forest itself, to be lost forever. Brandt hung on to its head with all his considerable weight, and the horse managed to lift him right off the ground anyway. At the same time Talya got his cloak loose and tried to blind the animal with it, the same way that Melissa had with Snowflake.