The forest rushed past all around her as Loriana pushed ahead.
Her limbs burned from scrapes and cuts. Her heart pounded in her chest. And her lungs screamed for more air. Yet she could not, dared not, stop running. If she stopped, she’d get eaten.
One moment they were hiking through the lush forest, the next Iamerla had commanded her to run with such urgency that Loriana had bolted without a second thought.
She heard something crashing through a nearby bush. She hoped it was her elven companion.
She threw a glance to the side, catching a glimpse of something lavender moving between the trees, and was rewarded by tripping over a large root.
Loriana stumbled, crashing into the ground. She lay there for a few moments, listening to the forest around her.
It seemed strangely quiet, aside from the odd bird or animal call in the distance, and it left her with a feeling of relief more than anything else. They had escaped the trolls.
Imaerla first noticed it in the trees and bushes; they had grown threatening in their countenance. Bare limbs seemed to reach out to grab her, seeking to hold her fast that the trolls might catch her, while roots made the ground uneven and vines crept around her legs to pull her down.
She slowed down to a walk, her gaze darting around the darkening woods in search of Loriana. She was surrounded by bushes full of wicked thorns while hungry predators stalked behind them, patches of their black fur showing through the undergrowth.
In the distance she could just barely make out a light, flickering behind the trees. She hoped it was a campfire and not a will-o’-the-wisp trying to lure her deep into fae lands.
The forest had no trees like these, no bushes such as the ones trapping her, and certainly no animals like the ones she had seen glimpses of. She knew them only from her dreams, nightmares, and her earliest childhood memories.
Imaerla’s heart sank as the realization of what was going on dawned on her. She was already in the lands of faerie, without a guide to lead her home.
She started toward the light once again, more cautiously this time. As she crept closer Imaerla tried to figure out when she got here, but soon realized there was no way to know. Her panicked flight from the trolls had been too rushed, too focused. Every stream could be a threshold, every pair of trees or rocks the end of a trod, and every bush an entrance.
Her hand went to her neck, touching the mark left by the Rose’s spell. She hoped that Loriana had not ended up here as well, or it would likely be the end of them both. Imaerla was no druid, yet she at least had some knowledge of the Fair Folk and their lands. Loriana, the poor girl, knew nothing of their tricks and traps.
Loriana heaved herself to a stand and looked around. The forest was calm and quiet, full of green leaves and lush bushes. With nothing else to guide her, she started off in the direction she thought Imaerla to have been headed.
She had not gone far before she heard music -humming- from somewhere up ahead. At first she thought it might be her companion, but quickly dismissed that idea when the humming grew clearer during her approach. The voice was guttural and rough, nowhere near the melodious stream carrying Imaerla’s speech.
Loriana slowed down as she began remembering tales she had heard, though when and where she’d heard them she didn’t know.
Tales about travelers lost in the wilderness running into strange beings, fey, who more often than not lured them off into the Hinterlands never to be seen again… at least, not in any form Loriana would want to be. Some tales had them wandering into fae realms on their own, stumbling on a merry court of fey where they would then remain, dancing and feasting, for but a single night before being led home only to find years had passed.
‘The fey are emotion where spirits are the land,’ someone had once told her. Someone she’d known well and held dear, yet couldn’t place. A parent or sibling, perhaps? She could feel the memory there, lingering just out of reach. A face she couldn’t see, a voice she couldn’t hear, and hands she couldn’t touch. A shadow, slowly drifting into the darkness despite Loriana’s efforts.
Her attempt to drag the memory into light was interrupted when she stepped into a clearing. There, she found a strange creature crouching by a campfire under the midday sun, boiling a sweet-smelling stew in a large pot.
The glade was quite small, barely large enough for the firepit and the large mossy rock and old log flanking it. Thick bushes and stout trees grew around its edges, creating a sense of seclusion for the clearing. From somewhere behind the wall of plants Loriana could hear the sounds of a stream lazily making its way through the woods.
The creature itself -himself?- was wrinkled, short, and scrawny. His hide was a murky, mottled olive hue that matched the dirty, greasy look of his bountiful mop of thin, dark grey hair. He was looking at her with eyes more beastly than human, their whites and irises a deep golden yellow around the big black circles of his pupils. He beamed at her with a grin missing more than one tooth.
His dress, what little he had, was as filthy as his hair and as mismatched as Loriana had ever seen. Torn and unwashed animals skins formed a crude loincloth, held in place by a finely made serpentine belt around his waist. His boots, once a pair of quality shoes, were caked in mud and seemed a poor fit on his feet. Every time he moved he rustled with sound as bracelets of various materials danced about his wrists while beads and bones rattled in his hair. His ears, long and pointy where they stuck out from his head, were heavy with rings and studs, some gold others wood or bone.
He lifted a long, four-knuckled finger in the air and beckoned to her with it, then motioned at the nearby log with his hand, the other slowly stirring the stew with a gnarled staff adorned in one end with charms of feather and bone.
“Sit, little girl. Sit and share my fire.” His voice was hoarse, yet strangely soothing. Loriana felt safe here, surrounded by verdant underbrush and ancient trees, and so she slowly sat herself down on the log.
She paused, not quite yet seated. Something in the back of her mind, that shadow of a memory of a person, had called to her, had stopped her. More than one story said that in the Hinterlands even the choice of chair at the table could determine your fate. She needed to be cautious of fey trickery; this man no doubt had things other than her best interests at heart.
The man grinned at her as she moved, even chuckled a bit as he watched her hesitate. He appeared to lose interest in her once she had settled down and returned to cooking. Occasionally he would dip a finger, his nails veritable claws, into the broth to bring out a few drops to taste. Always he would mutter something about “Not ready…” or “Not yet, hurry up.”, and once offering a cryptic “They late, still missing.” with a surreptitious glance at Loriana.
Having calmed down and pushed away her fear, Imaerla was relieved to note that the trees had become greener and the bushes less thorny along her path. Her feline stalkers had moved off to seek other prey and the sunset beyond the dome of leaves above promised a moonlit night of beauty. A reflection of her own inner self as she began to feel more at home and less terrified of the dangers within the ancient woods.
Imaerla’s relief proved short-lived, for though the greatest danger of the Fae Wilds lay in a visitor’s state of mind there were plenty of other threats. Crouching upon a moss covered stone in the clearing before her was such a threat, its wicked grin revealing vicious fangs.
The goblin was looking straight at her even before she stepped into the circle of light emanating from the large fire to the creature’s side. It motioned one of its clawed hands at a small log opposite its perch, then turned back to the fire and poked at it with a staff.
Imaerla knew better than to accept its offered seat and promptly sat herself on the ground near the fire. She would have preferred to walk away, but she had to at least attempt to convince this creature to help her back to the Wood.
She had to get back to Loriana.