The sun was setting when I got my answer. Tinn and Wenn refused to say, their already large eyes getting wider. They kept their ears swiveling as we entered the trees and didn’t stop as we traveled between the blackened trunks.
It wasn’t as if they’d been burned. There was no scent of smoke in the air. None of the strong smells like that emitted from my forge as I fed it hardwood to make coal beds to craft metal into artistic marvels. No. These were… sick? Dead? There was a scent of something about them, not right.
They had silvery leaves though, with a fine fuzz coating the backs, that shivered in the breeze that came with the falling sun. Or maybe it was the feet jumping from branches because no one had been before us on the path and then suddenly there they were.
Infected humans. They had black streaks radiating down their chests from spikes of wood, clearly parts of the trees of the forest, that pierced their shoulders and threaded through their collarbones. Decoration? Defense? Desecration?
“Pay toll.” The female wildling bared her teeth as she spoke, exposing sharp, broken teeth. She brandished a club made from one of the trees, a dark knob on the end.
I stepped in front of my family more firmly.
“Don’t let them touch you!” Tinn said urgently.
“What’s the toll?” I asked without taking my eyes off either of the wildlings in front of me. Their bare bodies were covered in sap, leaves, and bark, but they were hardly decent. They spoke, though.
The male’s eyes roved over the group.
“No,” I barked, widening my stance. I put my hand on my hip, closer to a blade. He might have been looking to see what we carried, but I had the feeling he was seeing who’d be the tastiest or who we might be willing to part with. “What is the toll?” I asked again, stressing each word.
“Meat,” he hissed.
Great. We didn’t have much of that. Londe and the foals didn’t eat it, and I’d never picked up much of a taste for it.
Wenn chittered. Londe shifted, which I sensed, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the pair blocking the path. They had what looked like sticks in their hands but when the female leaned forward and sniffed, I’d caught the hollow end.
Blow tubes. Great weapons for them, shitty for us. It was hard to defend against those. They were quick to use, easy to reload, and depending on the user, accurate. They were close enough they didn’t have to be very good.
Explained the gap in the wildlings’ teeth.
A bag sailed over my shoulder. I flinched, then cursed.
“Sorry,” Tinn said.
The wildlings fell on the bag, tugging on it, fighting over the ties. When they got it open, there were cries of delight to rival any young who’d been surprised with a treat. They each dipped in a hand and pulled out hunks of a dried meat, stuffing their mouths.
“We go around them,” Tinn said.
“That’s it?” They wouldn’t try to grab one of us? Follow us?
“As long as we don’t see any more. They won’t leave until the food is gone. They don’t ever stop eating when they have access to meat. So we go now, and we go fast, and we hope we come out of the forest before we pass into the territory of another pair. Luckily, they usually have a wide range since there isn’t much food in this forest. So yes, we need to go. Now. Unless you have other bags of meat hidden away?” He led the way around the gnawing wildlings who were squatted in the middle of the trail.
“Nope,” Londe said. “And I’m somewhat offended you had that packed away on me.”
“You’re the one who offered to carry things, Pater,” Marces said.
“How long will it take them to eat that?” I asked.
“A while.” Wenn glanced over his shoulder. “We bring jerky because of their teeth.”
I took up the rear, letting Tinn take over the front. I slid my blade out; my skin was crawling and I wanted it free. “What happened to them?”
“These trees were once dyad homes. Humans who lived in the town went on a rampage, killing the spirits of the Beings who depended on the trees, and these are the remnants of those murderers. The magic rebounded on them, and they can no longer leave the trees either. They’ve gone mad. Wild.”
Wenn nodded. “They try to become part of the trees, but they can never be dyads.”
“And the town…?”
“That is the place the souls of those who didn’t survive the battle roam. Or return to.”
It seemed like the farther east we went, the more Beings we encountered. Worse, the more Beings whose magic had been twisted, damaged, or taken. It was like there was a spreading taint that caused the already wide rift between Beings and humans to grow even wider.
What was fueling this?
Luckily, Tinn’s supposition that we would clear the trees before we left the wildling pair’s territory came true, and we were not accosted by any other naked, ensorcelled humans demanding meat tolls. My hand ached as I sheathed my blade, flexing my hand to ease the ache.
Light was fading as we made distance between us and the trees. There would be no fire tonight, but that was fine. The last thing I wanted to do was touch any wood. I pulled out the map and my stomach dropped.
The three dots had separated. And one was close. Very close.
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