They continued north along the river, the peaceful and vibrant western shore a stark contrast to the east. The Cursed Forest lay dark and dreary to their right. An imposing mass of decay and twisted bows, it seemed to move and undulate much like a coiled animal ready to spring.
Erinael did as she had been instructed, staying close to Idriss’ side as they continued to carry him on his litter. The Mender remained nearby as well, an arrow knocked and at the ready. Tanis continued to hover over Erinael, prepared to throw himself between her and any threat.
But none of that really bothered her. It was much as it had been when they had begun their journey. It was Jono, however. The Dead Hunter that had joined them at the falls.
Tanis had known him since before his self-exile, treating him warmly enough. But Jono’s gaze was relentless and it unnerved Erinael. He watched her constantly, a steely glare that gave her the very clear impression that he did not like her. She made a point of staying out of his way.
Taking care of Idriss made that easy. He was no longer catatonic, but still unresponsive. He would flail and cry out in his sleep and it was all that they could do to keep him quiet. However, her proximity to him did seem to calm him considerably.
The temperatures were beginning to drop at night from the ice water of the river and as they grew ever closer to Igdrasil and the Frozen Mountains beyond the great tree. Erinael would often wake to find herself pressed against Idriss for warmth. He was at his most still when she did that., like his fits were because he was unable to find her. She asked such of the Mender, only to get a smile as an answer.
One day, the weather was very bad. Dark clouds covered the sky, and the wind whipped the trees furiously. Lightning would streak across the sky, trailing a crack of thunder. Fearing a serious storm, Tanis had no choice but to call a halt.
Camp was struck quickly and a small tent was set up, Erinael crouching down inside of it next to Idriss as the others worked. Idriss was at his worst, crying out at the thunder. Erinael struggled to calm him, but it was of no use. He gripped her hand strongly, saying incomprehensible things as she made shushing sounds while stroking his forehead. The only thing she could understand was his saying “Erin” over and over again.
The Mender stuck her head inside the tent. “Stay!” she mouthed before darting away. In the next flash of lightning Erinael could make out her silhouette, arrow knocked and fingers ready to draw.
Erinael then did her best to pull Idriss into her lap, clutching him about the head and shoulders and rocking back and forth. His eyelids fluttered, but the pupils had only rolled back into his head.
The sound of fighting reached her ears, Dead Hunters yelling orders and locations. There was crashing and swearing, even deafening booms as spells activated. Not knowing what else to do, Erinael drew Kalhanna and set it at her side.
Along with cries of pain and death, there were shrill cackles and haunting gibbers. Lightning flashed again and she could make out a hulking shape holding a Dead Hunter like a broken toy. There then came a roar of pain as several Hunters rallied to the aid of their fallen comrade.
Erinael’s heart pounded in fear as she continued to clutch Idriss to her. To be face to face with unnatural death made her feel paralyzed with fear. Whether remnants of Dead Hunter blood flowed in her veins or not, she had no idea what to do.
There was more yelling, the Mender Erinael could pick out easily enough. But she was angry, accusatory. But at who?
Just then, the woman screamed in agonizing pain and Idriss responded with a bellow of his own before going rigid. Erinael shook him, saying his name but no response. She took Kalhanna in hand, knowing that it was only a matter of time before the defenses would be broken entirely.
She yelped in fear as a heavy body came crashing into the side of the tent. Pulling the canvas down over the top of them, the creature shrieked and gibbered as it clawed for them. Erinael struggled to drag Idriss away, kicking the creature when it managed to grab onto him. Snatching up Kalhanna, she chopped off what appeared to be a moldering hand and knocked it away. It sickened her to note that the lost appendage still moved and wriggled.
Rough hands grabbed her by the arms, trying to separate her from Idriss. Screaming, she kicked and struggled as she succeeded in getting in a blow from her elbow. Hands grabbed for her again as she seized the hilt of Kalhanna. Twisting at the same moment, she thrust the point at her attacker. Lightning flashed again as she found it to be Jono, a sneer of hate contorting his face.
“The time of dragons has passed.” he spat. “I will not allow the same to befall the elves!” He lunged for her again, but Erinael still leveled Kalhanna at him. The blade effortlessly sank into his flesh up to the hilt and protruded from his back. “Humans are an abomination.” he wheezed, blood oozing from his mouth and dripping onto her face.
Putting up her foot, she then rolled him off of her and freed Kalhanna from his chest. She then scrambled to her feet to find the creature that had attacked them to be lying in a flaming heap. With their master dead, the rotting creatures fell back to the baser instincts of biting and clawing. The surviving Dead Hunters then quickly made short work of the putrefied golems.
Erinael dropped to Idriss’ side, immediately checking to see if he was okay. He appeared to be none the worse for wear, a wounded Dead Hunter standing guard nearby. Once she was sure that Idriss was alright, Erinael promptly turned aside and vomited.
What they faced. What she had done. She had killed a man. It hit all at once and made her feel dizzy. She heaved again and again until nothing remained. Then she could only gag, spit, and cough.
Tanis found her after the mop-up, sitting dazed next to Idriss. The wounded Dead Hunter had helped her to clean herself up. “I killed him.” she said quietly. “I-I didn’t mean to.”
“It had to be done.” Tanis intoned. “Now there are those who need your assistance. Koba will watch Idriss.”
He then pulled Erinael to her feet and ushered her over to a tent housing the most severely injured. At the center of which lay the Mender. Despite a severe belly wound, she maintained an aura of calm.
Erinael gingerly lifted the bandage to see a long, yet deep gash. “It looks worse than it is.” the woman grimaced. It was as if she were trying to hard to hide the pain.
“This is going to hurt.” Erinael said apologetically.
The Mender bit back a scream as Erinael began to care for the wound. It was obviously from a sword slash, yet fortunately missed the most important organs and veins.
“You were very lucky.” Erinael said quietly, packing in more bandages. She turned to one of the Dead Hunters who was assisting with the wounded. “I need to sew her up. Get me some anesthetics.” He nodded before going to retrieve the needed supplies.
“No.” the woman protested, grabbing Erinael’s hand. “Do it without them.”
“I’m sorry, but you need the medicine.” The woman protested further, but it went unheeded, a liquid poured onto a rag having been drawn over her face. Within moments she was still but for the steady rise and fall of her chest.
Erinael worked quickly to stitch up the slash. First by flushing the blood away so that she could see, and then packing the bleeding with cloths until she could properly suture them closed.
As she worked, Erinael mulled things over in her mind. The other wounded had been cast with stasis magic until they could be treated, both numbing the pain and encouraging the body’s own natural healing abilities. However, the same had not been done for the Mender. Erinael needed to know why, but now was not the time.
As soon as the Mender had been seen to and the bleeding had stopped, Erinael moved on to the next critically injured. Out of the twenty or so men, only five had made it through unscathed. Twelve suffered an assortment of wounds ranging from scratches and cuts to broken and dislocated limbs. Three had been killed.
Those who were able, helped to dispose of the remains of Jono’s necromantic creatures. A pit was dug in which the carcasses were placed before they were then burned. After which they were buried and the ground consecrated.
The three dead men were then laid out on funeral pyres before being burned. Tanis himself saw to their consecration. As for Jono’s corpse, Tanis ordered for it to be burned and thrown in the river. Traitors were not suffered lightly by the Dead Hunter clans.
By the time everything had been completed, night had fallen. Erinael sat inside a tent, arms holding her knees pulled up to her chest as she watched the weather. Lightning still cracked and thunder boomed, but no rain fell. Not on the Eastern side of the river, anyway. Trees could be seen getting whipped this way and that on the Western side as the wind and rain exerted their power over them. On the Eastern side, however, a cold wind buffeted the tents.
On watch duty, Tanis was making the rounds. When he discovered Erinael to still be awake, he sighed before crouching down in front of her. “You should be sleeping, Princess.” He said. “Dolvar will mind the wounded.”
Erinael shook her head. “It’s not that…” she took a deep breath before looking Tanis in the eye. “Why was stasis magic not used on her?” she asked, gesturing to the Mender, who was lying peacefully near to Idriss.
In a brief slash of lightning, she could make out a wry smile on Tanis’ lips. “Because she is of more that just the Elven kin.” he said quietly. “Our magic is pitiful in comparison.”
Erinael wanted to question him further, but Dolvar came to check on the wounded Mender. “Be sure that she rests.” Tanis commanded before striding away.
Erinael scowled. She felt that she was deserving of answers, and Tanis was being deliberately vague.
Dolvar was a gentle man with a pleasant disposition. Not someone Erinael would have pegged as the type to exile himself to the Cursed Forest. Tsking quietly, he pushed Erinael toward her bedroll. “You are already exhausted. Do not stress yourself further.”
Erinael complied, knowing that he could only force her to lie to down. He could not force her to sleep unless she resisted. She lay on her side, watching the Mender as she contemplated. Both she and Idriss were mysteries to Erinael, and she would find out the truth.
But not this night. Erinael yawned once, twice, and then a third time. Her eyelids felt heavy and soon they drooped closed, the wind and thunder lulling her to sleep.