Erinael awoke that next morning with her heart full of dread. Today they were to reach the southern most border f the Cursed Forest.
Breakfast was quick, as usual, consisting of hard tack and some fruit that they had found along the way. The Mender had made a paste that Erinael spread on her hardtack. Tasting slightly bitter, it did help to gentle her stomach and nerves somewhat.
They trekked onward toward the northeast, the Dead Hunters making more frequent appearances as the day progressed. The edge of the forest was getting ever closer.
By the noon hour, Erinael was beginning to hear the sound of rushing water. They rounded a bend of trees and rocky terrain, and there it was. The Sorna River.
In the distance she could make out a set of cliffs, a sizable waterfall plummeting down to the jagged rocks below. Swift rapids churned out beyond it.
“There’s a path along the river that leads to the falls. From there we will cross under and then take the stair beyond up the cliff.” Tanis explained, using a stick to draw in the dirt while they were stopped for lunch.
“That puts us on the eastern side.” Erinael murmured.
“The western stair is too steep to carry Idriss.” The Mender said quietly. “And to ford the river at the peak would be too risky. The current is very swift up there.”
“And regardless we cannot take the horses.” Tanis added. “I will not put them at risk.”
“Then how are we to carry Idriss?”
“It will be an honor for the Dead Hunters to carry him.”
After lunch, they shouldered the packs that had been carried by the two horses and the travois that had carried Idriss had been fashioned into a stretcher. Tanis and one of the other Dead Hunters lifted him to their shoulders with seemingly little effort when the time had come to start out. As one of the forward scouts led the horses away, they started toward the river.
The trail was relatively easy-going at first. The elevation rose gradually as they went along, the landscape sloping down behind them as they neared the swiftly flowing river. However, there were a few places where they had to scale up a rocky outcropping, Idriss and his stretcher carefully being passed upward.
The going was slow, and Tanis called a halt before the telltale tinge of evening colored the sky. Even with the nearly full moon, there would not be enough light to safely climb the stair. They made camp on a small ridge overlooking the river. Again, there was no fire.
Erinael sat looking down at the river, watching as the water frothed and foamed. She could only imagine how fast the water would have to be moving in order for there to be such a sizable set of rapids. Anything unfortunate enough to be trapped in the current would surely be dashed to pieces on the rocks.
The opposite side of the river appeared to be a world of its own. Dark, gnarled and menacing looking trees pressed down to the river back. Those that grew closest to the water almost seeming to recoil from it. The blackened limbs and shriveled leaves leaning up and away from the flowing water.
Tanis came up behind her then. “The wards are set.” he said. He surveyed the far bank, keen eyes peering into the darkness for the longest time. “The Cursed Forest is a living, breathing thing. Poisoned by necromancer magic. Do not trust anything that you will see or hear. Do not stray from Idriss’ side. Ever.”
“I understand.” Erinael said, even though she did not.
The Dead Hunters then spent the remainder of the afternoon and into the evening ensuring that their weapons were at the ready. Those who had been East were giving pointers to those who had not. Erinael had watched with interest as they crafted and strengthened runes on weapons and armor. Even Erinael’s clothes had become adorned with them.
“How do you know so much about Dead Hunter magic?” Erinael asked the Mender.
The woman only smiled as she patiently stitched runes into Erinael’s tunic with white thread. “I’m well traveled.” and that was all she would say.
They did not break camp until after dawn, when the sun fell on the path to the falls. At first, the roar of the water had kept her awake, but Erinael found herself awaking from a very sound sleep. Again, breakfast consisted of fruit and hardtack.
Each time they had stopped for meals, the packs had been consolidated and evenly redistributed. They each carried a share of the food and fresh water, as well as some of the medicines. The purpose of which was to lessen the risk of losing everything if a pack were to be lost.
Dead Hunter scouts had left before dawn, ensuring that the path along the river would be clear. Erinael hoped that they meant clear of obstructive debris.
When it was time to leave, they first went directly north along a ridge just parallel to the river. Then they began to carefully pick their way down an incline of steps that were no more than footholds in the rock. Two Dead Hunters climbed down first, then the Mender, and then Erinael.
“When Igdrasil transformed himself and became one with the earth, he changed the flow of the river.” The Mender began, adjusting the quiver of white arrows strapped across her back. “He split the cliffs and lifted the land. He couldn’t destroy the portal himself, but he could build what protections he could. The Dead Hunters have done the rest.” Erinael could see the weathered tool-marks on the rocks where they had been altered to make it more difficult to climb. “The river contains the essence of his own being, and breaks the bindings of Necromancer rune-spells.”
As the Mender spoke, Idriss had been carefully lowered over the edge, feet first. He had begun to show more and more awareness as they had traveled, and now behaved much as if he was in a fever dream. He murmured, and moaned and would quiet only at the Mender or Erinael’s touch. Even now his face twitched and his eyes flicked about beneath his eyelids.
“It won’t be long now. Tomorrow, the day after, at the latest.” the Mender murmured, gently touching his face. “He can sense the corruption of the Cursed Forest. It haunts his dreams, and Kalhanna stirs beside him.”
“Come.” Tanis commanded, taking the lead. His long strides seeking a careful path over the loose rocks of the river bed as they continued north.