The days passed easier now, Sigmarr still kept the pace, but there was an uneasiness to the horses at night, it grew steadily worse the farther north they went, something was in the air. The grasslands were now starting to become brown and not much forage could be found for the horses, looking north the men could see a dark cloud that seemed never to move, it marked the boundary of the Starkdall Forest. 4 more days of riding until they reached the forest edge, not much to be found around this place, the prairie grass was all but gone now, only stipple roots could be seen. Sigmarr, Kergin, and the men camped outside of the forest that night, resting up for the unknown, tomorrow they would venture in and try to find the Shield of Njordist.
The Starkdall forest loomed before the men camped there that night, a stiff breeze swept from the east, bringing more chill to the air, the horses remained jittery and the men got little sleep, wondering about what lay ahead, what was it about this forest that gave brave men pause. The trees of this forest were all about the same size, a large man could almost wrap his arms about the trunk and touch his finger to this thumb, some were larger and some were smaller as any forest is, the trees grew straight and tall, the limbs were mostly towards the top, there were very few limbs that grew below the height of a man mounted on horseback, the leaves were few among the canopy, they were black with color and they did not move or rustle among the branches when the wind blew, the bark was stained black, like burnt logs on a fire, and smooth of texture. The forest floor was covered with years on dead leaves, all color lost now, they were a sickly white with yellow fungus among them, the ground beneath was black from the color that had left the leaves.
Not a cheerily forest, no green, yellows or reds could be seen within this forest, the sky was always dark, from the clouds that stayed above, they never seemed to move, very little sunshine was cast among the trees, even during the clearest of days. This was the Starkdall forest that Sigmarr, Kergin, and the men would enter this morning, searching for the beacon stones and the Shield of Njordist.
Sigmarr led the way that morning with Kergin close behind to his side, the rest of the men followed, everyone was ready for battle and could easily reach their swords or bows, every eye was watching, looking for any signs of strange beasts or wild animals that might be lurking in the forest. An easy pace was kept, no one knew where to look for the beacon stones or the Shield of Njordist. The forest grew darker and darker as they journeyed into its realm, so torches were lit to help guide the way, everything about them was strange, one tree looked like the next, no landmarks could easily be seen, the forest had an eerie silence about it, there were no bird calls or animal sounds of any kind, the only sound that could be heard was the horses footfalls on the dry white leaves, it made a crushing, snapping sound. At night no campfires could be lit, the leaves and any fallen branches that could be found would not burn, torches were used to heat the evening’s stew, and the campsite was always ringed with them, three men at a time stood watch over the sleeping men and the horses.
For three days and nights Sigmarr and his men wandered, looking for any signs or paths that might guide them to the beacon stones, each was like the last, the scenery never seemed to change, perhaps they were going in circles around this forest. The trek on the fourth day began as all the rest had, but the scenery now began to change, the ground to what may have been the west side, now had a green glow to it, and a low hanging whitish-yellow mist hung just off the ground. Venturing near the mist, it was found to be a swamp area, barely noticeable due to the thick covering of leaves, bubbles of gas could be seen rising to the top and bursting in the air, it had a foul rotting smell of dead flesh, a sickening smell. The men now had to be careful where they led their horses, they kept well back from the glowing mists edge. Sigmarr and his men kept to the swamps edge and followed it as it wandered thru the forest, it must led somewhere they thought. For two days they slowly followed the swamps edge. The men grew more uneasy about this venture into the Starkdall forest, each night their grumping could be heard, a fools errand they thought it was, there was nothing to be found here, they would be lost in this forest and perhaps never found, they grumped this is why the 20 men never came back. The morning came with a chill about the air.
“Over here, over here.” One of the soldiers cried out, there on the ground lay one of the pack horses, it had large puncture wounds, grouped in a pattern about its body, each wound was as big as a mans thumb, and had a white sticky ring around it, the horse’s face was covered with the same white sticky threadlike material, it could be barely cut with a sharpened dagger. Two smaller pack mules were also missing that morning, no trace of blood or struggle could be found, all the men searched for at least 50 yards around the campsite, but nothing was found, nothing. Everyone was tense now, the complacent nature that had started to develop in the men was gone now, death was in the air. None of the guards posted that night had heard anything, no sounds of violence or struggle were heard by any of them. Sigmarr and the men continued on, each man had one hand upon his sword or dagger and he held tightly to his horse’s reigns, the horses were very skittish that morning and had to be firmly led.
Two urgent scared voices, each man looked around to see where the danger was, there was nothing about them, the last two rider’s horses were empty and the men where nowhere to me seen, Sigmarr now gather everyone around in a tightly grouped formation, ready for an attack, swords were drawn and bows at the ready, but done came.
“Helllppp,”…the voice came.
“Look, up in the trees,” a solider shouted.
There in the blacken tree tops and among the leaves was what took the men that day, giant mutated black spinner-netters were hanging above them, their black bodies perhaps as big as a man, with legs eight feet long, hanging from white silken threads were they. And there were the two soldiers that had been taken, now being cocooned in silken webs, the spinner-netters injected their victims with their venom as they hung from the trees, not a soldiers death, a ghastly death it would be. Arrows now were shot into the trees at these monsters, all missed except Kergin’s, his arrows found their mark. One pierced the black body of a spinner and another went thru the glowing red eye of a second. Sigmarr ordered Kergin to shoot the two soldiers that hung from their silken threads, a merciful end for them. Movement was all about the tree tops now, the men put away their swords and bows and hurriedly left the swamp’s edge, fleeing to getaway from the terrors that dropped silently from the treetops.
“Eiiiiiiiiiiiiieiei”… “Helllppppp”…another solider taken.
Faster and faster they went, not caring where or how far, just to get away, was everyman’s’ thought. For perhaps ten minutes the men raced away from the swamp, then finally turning round a bend in the forest, the men halted and looked about them and into the forest blacken treetops, nothing could be seen, no monstrous shapes or glowing red eyes, perhaps they were safe for now.
To be continued...