There was a brief squawk, and thud, somewhere ahead in the mists.
“Never mind!” Petra called. “Katarin found it! The next one is over here!”
The pathway had been constructed hundreds of years ago, and it was obvious that the shoreline had been a handful of yards further out in the past. The few places the paving stones were clearly visible, they were an arm’s length under the water. Others, still along the shoreline, were barely visible corners, or just depressions along the sandy shoreline,the paving stones only visible after scooping away armfuls of pebbly sand and old silt deposits.
Only Petra seemed to find the activity any kind of fun, and only then because she poked through the pile of moved earth to pluck out an old kopec or crona, dashing down to the shore to wash it off in the waters of the lake.
Brynne finally grabbed the girl’s wrist as she was about to make another trip to the lake. “Will you stop doing that? What if one of those turns out to be gold?”
The two girls stared out into the fog, at the flickering blue lights in the depths, unsure just how far off they might be.
“Now come on, let’s see where this leads.” Brynne did not let go of Petra’s sleeve until they were well past the closest of the piles by the excavations.
The group slowed some ten minutes later, coming to the edge of the woods. A stretch of pebbly beach perhaps as wide as Lord Justin’s height was all that stood between the first rank of trees and the water’s edge.
“What… what is wrong with them?” Katarin asked.
Petra was right: they did not look… right: The trees grew gnarled, knotty, some with long strips of bark hanging off in curls. Rather than gray-green or green, the needles bore a purplish coloring, those that weren’t already brown and dead.
“How far does this go?” Katarin asked.
Petra shrugged. “Maybe half the distance between here and the baron’s border. We weren’t allowed to go more than a little ways into this part of the woods.”
“I can certainly see why,” Brynne said. She reached up with her staff, poking at one of the pinecones. Part of it crumbled away at the touch, showering the group with its gritty dust.
“Well, we’ll have to go through this if we want to follow this old road,” Lord Justin said.
“Who said we were going to do that?” Jasna asked. “We came out here to look at the old stones, and see the woods. We’re done here. Now we can go back to town and celebrate the new year with our friends.”
“Where is your sense of adventure?”
“In town, waiting for me after tomorrow’s breakfast,” Jasna said.
Lord Justin made to respond, but Petra quieted him with a hiss and an upraised finger.
“Somebody’s coming,” she whispered. She glanced around. Save the woods, there was no cover.
“Into the trees!” Brynne whispered. “There’s a couple fallen trees we can hide behind in there.”
“I don’t hear anything,” Justin said. But the girls pulled and pushed him along into the woods.
Several moments later, the rhythmic jangling of armor and weapons drifted through the fog.
“Are you sure they went this way?” a man’s voice asked. The accent was distinctly Traladaran.
“What other way could they go?” came another man’s voice. “And look. See there? They’ve found the Old Road. They can’t be very far ahead of us.”
“You mean to follow, then?”
The second voice chuckled. “Follow? No, we wait. If they do not return, then we can be content that the traps or guardians have served their purpose. If they return, we either take the treasure, or their heads. Golithar pays the same, either way.”
The jangle and creaking of armor and leather subsided, though it was difficult to tell in the fog if it was lost in the distance, or simply swallowed by the mists.
Jasna glanced over at Petra, who closed her eyes, cocking her head one way and the other. After a few moments, she opened her eyes, shrugging. The two girls flashed several hand signals back and forth, before they both nodded.
Petra rose, her eyes intent on the forest floor. She moved slowly, placing her feet gently, arms outstretched for balance. Jasna followed, her following where the other girl’s feet had fallen. Before she took another step, she pointed at the young man, and then at the spots where she’d already stepped. He nodded, rising slowly, clutching at his sword and the lantern, making the two steps with surprisingly little wobble in his step. When Jasna’s eyes widened slightly, he stuck his tongue out at her.
Every four or five steps, Petra would pause, listening, and then move on. It took nearly half an hour to make another half mile’s progress, but they made it with a minimal amount of noise, and did not hear any sounds of pursuit.
It was eerie, creeping through the woods -- there were no sounds of wildlife, just the rustling they made with their progress and a dry rattle of what little breeze made it through the tendrils of fog curling amongst the twisted trees. The land began to rise steadily, and the mists faded. Shortly thereafter, the trees straightened, growing healthier the more the ground climbed away from the shoreline.
Ridges of black granite rose abruptly, like some great wall. They had to follow it back in the direction of the lake to find the fissure that the Old Road cut through, a fold in the rock wide enough for a large cart or small wagon. The sounds of Justin’s mail and sword echoed loudly in confines of the narrow pass.
The roadway still gradually rose, and they emerged to find a stretch of the road unbroken, weathered but sheltered from too much erosion by the small copse of pines that it cut through. Tracks through the accumulation of needles and swathes of mud showed that they were not the first to come along the road recently.
They followed the sound of a trickling brook for another half hour before the snorting and shuffling caused the group to freeze just before the bend in the trail. The sounds came more urgently, and the irritated snorting grew to a startled whinny giving way to a chorus of jabbering, shrill voices.
Jasna moved, to dash around the bend in the wooded trail, but Petra grabbed her wrist, shaking her head.
“What do you think you’re doing? Those are goblin voices!” she whispered.
She should have grabbed Justin’s arm as well.
“Come back here, Stableboy!” Jasna called after him. She wrenched free of the other girl, jogging after the young man.
“They’re only goblins,” he said, but the smile on his face dissolved as he rounded the twist in the trail.
“And goblins always travel in packs,” Jasna told him, as the dozen squat, gray-skinned figures looked up from ransacking the campsite. Yellowed eyes, narrowed in the sunlight, narrowed further at the intrusion. More eyes gleamed from the shadows under the trees.
Jasna swallowed, her mouth going drier the higher she counted, tallying opponents.
“Now would be a very good time to draw that sword,” she whispered to the young man.
“W-would it not be a better idea to flee?” he asked.
“I begin to see what you mean about his bravery,” Katarin said. The young man spared her a glance, his brow furrowing at the sing-song quality of her voice.
“How can you be so calm? There must be… dozens of them!”
“Only twenty,” Jasna said.
“Twenty-six,” Petra corrected. “You forgot to look up.”
“Twenty-nine,” Brynne added. “There won’t be any running back the way we came.”
“Did your Magia teach you how to make light, like she did in the catacombs?” Petra asked.
Katarin nodded, slowly. “Yes, but… it doesn’t exactly--”
“Make some. Now. As bright as you can.”
Petra wasn’t listening. She stepped forward, throwing her hands wide, speaking words that sounded more like a series of hisses and belches than language. She pointed -- dramatically -- to Katarin.
Jasna elbowed the weaver. “Ight-lay!” she whispered.
Katarin drew in a deep breath, and her fingers danced, curling and moving ever so slightly. She brought up her right hand, and a watery, rippling sphere of light wobbled a few inches above her palm. The girl’s breathing quickened, the corner of one eye twitching.
The goblins croaked in surprise, shuffling back a few steps. The few nearest the group raised an arm to shield their eyes.
Petra made another series of gulping croaks and barks. The goblins drew back another step, muttering amongst themselves and looking towards the largest among them -- a goblin only half a head shorter than Jasna.
It drew itself up to full height, squinting up at Petra. It gestured around the campsite, then pounded its chest as it burbled something to the girl.
She laughed, not taking her eyes from the goblin, pointing over her shoulder her at Justin.
The goblin peered at the group, the young man in particular for a long moment, then gave a gurgling sigh, shaking its head. It turned, barking something to the others, but from its body language, its message was obvious. Those goblins that grumbled or muttered, or loitered around were silenced or prodded into motion by a few well placed punches from the leader. The goblin pack took off at a shambling, loping run, disappearing northwards into the woods.
Katarin let out an explosive gasp, dropping her arm as the ball of light gave a final wobble and flopped over, winking out.
“Well,” Justin said, adjusting his sword belt. “I suppose none of them wanted to face my sword.”
Petra choked down laughter. “Sword?” she finally managed.
“You offered me as your champion against their leader, if I followed your exchange correctly,” he said.
“I guess ‘offered’ is the right word,” the girl mused. “As champion? No. That would have been Brynne.”
The group halted at Petra’s call. She rummaged around in a bag at her waist, pulling out one of the pages they’d pored over the day before.
“This is it,” she said, glancing up from the page, at the mountains in the distance. “See? There is the snake and the rabbit. Which means….” She turned a slow circle.
“There!” Jasna said, and took two running steps across the broken paving stone. She jumped, trying to reach the branches of a scrubby shrub that clung to an outcropping of rock. Justin went to her side, reaching up, tugging at the branch. As it creaked aside, they saw the cluster of rounded folds of rock that looked like eggs sitting in a nest.
“There!” Petra said, pointing. Brynne turned, and saw the boot print in the drying mud. What they had taken for simply more overgrowth had apparently once been some sort of decorative hedging that ran along the front of the temple described in the manuscripts.
As Brynne pushed the tangle of brambles aside with her staff, they saw the beaklike overhang of rock. Beneath it was a fissure, leading down and into the hillside.
“Well,” Justin said, “I suppose it’s a good thing I brought this lamp.”
“But Katarin can--”
Brynne elbowed Jasna in the side. “Let the boy be of some use,” she whispered. Loudly. “After all, he came all this way.”