They smelled the fire before they saw it’s light.
Jenna grabbed at Dave’s hand, but he just gave her a weary look, pulling toward the fire. Her small frame was hunched over from the giant pack she wore. She’d insisted on taking all her own gear, and Dave had just given her his usual, ‘I told you so, before you even did it grin.’
“What if it’s a weirdo,” she hissed, causing him to shake his shaggy blond head.
“We gotta sleep somewhere. This is a hiking trail, Babe,” he replied and shifted his pack for emphasis. 6’4 and built for football Dave hadn’t even seemed tired most of the journey. “It’s dark already, you want to keep going? Fine, I’ll catch up.”
“Dave!” she followed after him. They’d been arguing, on-and-off, since they left the car 4-hours ago, 2-hours later than planned. They were supposed to be near the summit by now. No words had passed between them for the last 20 minutes.
The clearing connected to the path. It was ten feet wide, it’s middle occupied by a large stone fire pit. The trees formed a lopsided ring, and on the side nearest the fire pit sat a man. An oversized ‘Eugene’ hat pulled low over his eyes, and a walking stick leaning against his shoulder. His back to a tree, and eyes already on them as they entered the clearing.
“Pull up some grass,” he said in a happy, friendly tone, as he shifted a red backpack closer to his jean covered leg. “I’m James.” His eyes passed over her first and then across him, their piercing blue lost in the low light of the fire. The man’s clear wide focus drew a gulp from Jenna as his eyes settled back on her.
“Dave,” her boyfriend said with a wave. “Jenna.” He pointed at her. “Mind if we camp here?”
“Probably safer in numbers,” James said with a little laugh. “How’s your trail been?”
“Good man, hella good.” Digging around a bit, he pulled a bag of jerky out of his pack. “You bro?”
“Hella good, my man, hella good,” he laughed a lot louder this time. Jenna sniffed the air, hoping for the scent of pot or booze to explain his damned laughing. She found nothing but pine and fresh forest. “You? Young miss Jenna?”
“Fine,” she answered, shuffling a bit closer to Dave as her fingers slipped through her brown hair. Her eyes kept locking onto the worst of the two visible scars. A large puncture that ate into his lower left cheek. His smile caused it to flex.
“That’s nice.” He smiled, his eye lower on her body than before. “You guys got any extra food? This was a sudden trip, and all I brought was some tacos. They ran out this morning. I’ve got a bit of cash?” His tone added the question mark. The other scar sliced through the bridge of his nose, and Jenna could only imagine a knife had done it.
“Naw man, no worries,” Dave nodded. He handed off the half-bag of jerky and a few granola bars.“You going to the summit?”
“Probably not.” His eyes were on Jenna, and they burned right through her as he took the bottle of water Dave offered. “Might stay here a day or two.”
“We’re heading straight for the summit at daybreak,” Jenna informed him. “People are expecting us.” Dave’s eyes shifted to her, one brow raised.
“That’s good,” James told her. “I’m expecting company soon too.”
“Oh,” Jenna whispered but James smile faded as she did. She ignored Dave’s gesture at the sleeping bag he’d laid out. He’d placed her’s closer to the fire, but she laid down on his instead. Farther from the fire, but also farther from James.
“You guys should get some rest.” James leaned back against the tree once more, and pulled the hat low. A few moments of him crunching granola came before,“I wouldn’t think you’ll want to be tired in the morning.”
“Thanks,” Dave answered. “We got enough wood?”
“Plenty,” James answered. “I’ll keep an eye on it. ‘Night.”
Kint watched her hair move as she shifted. It was the same. Her hips too, the same wide sway to them as she moved. The fire hid her eye-color from him, it’s light too dull, but he knew they were that same honey color that always made him feel like a fool.
’68 years soon.’ He shook his head, and shifted as quietly as possible. ‘I should have told her Elijah.’ James had just been his most recent alias and the one that popped into his molasses like thoughts as he saw her again.‘Not her. Another damn mind trick? Just some hair. Focus.’
The wind picked up, and he shifted again, this time to hold the hilt of his cane. The sound ripped past him again, a gentle creaking to most, almost hidden on the wind. If you weren’t listening for it, surely it would be lost in the sounds of the night.
Jenna sat up at his movement her hand gripping Dave’s beefy shoulder.
“What’s going on?” Her voice was slow, creeping out in a whisper. She was speaking to Dave but he didn’t.
‘Intuitive too. Just like her.’ Kint waited a moment before saying, “Nothing really, just the wind. Why don’t you get on the other side of Dave though? A bit closer to the fire? Maybe the warmth will help you sleep?”
His tone was gentle, but she reacted as if sprayed with venom. “I’m fine here.” Her head shifted a bit, as if she heard the creak too, but she kept her eyes on him.
“Sara please.” His eyes shined into the woods as he moved to one knee. “Just move a bit.”
“My name is Jenna,” she whispered shaking Dave at this point. “Get up asshole, I told you not to take that whole thing.” The creak sounded again, hiding in the darkness her shadow cast. Kint was on his feet, stepping toward her when she felt it.
The point went right through her shoulder scraping the collarbone. Her body was pushed forward, blood puffing out of the wound as she was lifted.
“Told you,” Kint said, his eyes going cold, tears still on the edge of falling. The wooden blade, a branch broken roughly and sharpened against stones. It was the arm of a wooden woman, a patchwork body that could have been carved. She was shorter than Jenna but average height for her species.
The branch that served as her arm had been broken at the wrist, serving as a rough dagger. She was made, or grown, from pine. Moss clung to her body in parts, and her twig like hair had signs of new growth on the end.
Jenna felt the branch slipping out of her, it’s rough tip catching on the flesh. The ronin caught her as she fell forward, one-handed, as he spun his sword out of its sheath with the other. The Dryad slipped back into the forest with a low whistling taunt, daring Kint to leave the humans by the fire.
“Dave!” He accentuated the name with a not-too-gentle stomp to the man’s back. “Your girlfriend just got stabbed by a damned Dryad, or Naiad, or one of the ‘Ad’ forest things. Might want to check on it.”
He didn’t mean to be so rough, but he dropped her body as if it’s warmth burnt him. Her hand landed on the pit’s hot stones, but Dave was awake enough to move her. She was awake too, probably, her eyes unfocused and far off. Blood covered her shoulder and spread quickly on the sleeping bag.
“Fuck!” Dave shifted focus between the wound and Kint’s sword, a long silver-bladed katana that glinted with cold-fire in the moonlight. “Don’t kill us.”
“Put pressure on that wound, or I won’t have to lay a finger on her,” Kint said, his voice colder than the night his eyes were so focused on.
“What the fuck are you on man?!” As he spoke the Dryad broke through the trees behind him, dashing into the fires waning light once more. It’s eyes were solid wood, but the ronin could see their focus strongly on Dave, going for the weaker of them.
“WOUND NOW!” Kint shouted as he jumped past the younger man, bringing the katana down first and following with it’s cane-sheath. One sharp branch came off, spinning to the ground. The ronin slashed catching the dryad in the chest. Bark and splinters went flying from it’s feminine form.
Ducking forward into a low crouch he cut through the wooden legs. It’s screech was unearthly as it fell forward into the fire pit. It’s soul, or whatever passed for it, left it’s corpse quickly leaving nothing but a hunk of odd-shaped wood. The scent of pine faded to give way to something softer, and sweeter that still smelled of the woods.
Dave was crying as he held his hand over the shoulder, his sobs silent as he stared into her eyes. He’d pulled the sleeping bag over her, and was leaning close not aware of anything else but the moment. She was muttering something, but Kint didn’t even try to make it out.
“We’ve got to carry her,” Kint told him, as he handed the larger man his red bag. “Leave your stuff, and bring this. We need to get her to the ranger station and then a hospital, you guys can come back for your stuff.”
“Why can’t you carry it?”
“That was a Dryad,” Kint told him sheathing his sword with a flourish. “You ever see a forest with just one tree?”
“Why did it attack us?”
“I don’t know, some type of mind-rot?” He guessed. It came up a lot in his work, and he never had much patience for ‘twenty-questions.’ “Maybe it just didn’t like her hair-cut, but since you weren’t the first victims that’s a big ‘maybe’.”
“Can I let go of this?” He gestured at her shoulder.
Kint removed some strips of t-shirt from his backpack. “I’ll wrap it, you keep watch.” He didn’t wait for a reaction, just went to work on her shoulder. The branch hadn’t broken bone but it had torn the muscle to strips. The artery must not have been severed, or she wouldn’t have lasted this long.
‘Maybe nicked?’ The wound was only a few inches wide, but it had to have gone through something. He tried to recall his first aid training, but all he could think was to try to put some pressure on the wound and hope she survived. ‘Not dead yet. That’s a good sign, probably.’
“She’s bleeding a lot,” Dave told him, clearly not keeping watch. “I can carry her but she might not make the trip.”
“She’ll make it,” Kint told him. “She’ll be fine, just hold onto her and watch yourself. If something happens to you, I can’t save either of you.”
“I can fight too.”
“Not like me,” Kint said as he stood, ignoring Dave’s expression. With a double spin, he stuck his cane into his belt. “Follow close. It’s just a few hours ’til dawn.”
As if waiting for that moment, a creak of wood announced another Dryad. Kint went for the draw but this one was skilled and caught his arm, it’s fingers locking around his wrist. With his free hand he grabbed it’s wooden head and twisted it sharply. The springy wood didn’t break, but after a moment it removed it’s hands from his arm, and he finished the draw. It’s head came off in a clean cut.
Kint tossed the head up and gave it a vicious kick, watching it vanish into the darkness of the forest. As soon as the body turned he took the legs in one clean swipe. His feet broke the arms, leaving it a stump of dead wood.
“Dave?” Kint asked. Dave took the hint and hefted Jenna into his arms. He’d secured her in the cleaner of the two sleeping bags.
“Let’s hurry, there’s a ranger station about two hours out,” he stared ahead at the moonlight drenched path. “James? You have a light?”
“No, and don’t use one,” Kint told him. “I need to keep my eyes sharp. Save your breath for the hike, and if anyone asks I was never here.”
Dave asked a few more questions but Kint was more than happy to ignore him, walking a few steps ahead of the man. The path was well traveled and easy to follow. He was glad it was a forest service run path and cleaner than most.
In Corvene the woods were much thicker, but here it was like looking at a barren lawn with trees on it in places. Kint couldn’t see everything but his vision was good enough to see the little movements near the base of the trees.
Dryad’s would ignore their sister’s transgression against humans but what Kint had done they would see as unwarranted murder. Their was no going back on his actions, and not a lot of possibility of peace.
‘Couldn’t move when I told her to.’ He forced his mind off the pretty girls face. That particular line of thought wouldn’t be any help here.
The path narrowed a bit, then opened up into a wide clearing. Kint stopped, his hand easing onto his cane.
“What?” Dave asked bumping into the ronin. “What’s going on?” His voice was a hoarse whisper.
“Keep going.” Kint broke into a run, leapt on the fourth step, drawing his silver blade in an arc. A spin and he landed, a dryad that had been perched in the tree falling in two pieces behind him. “I said MOVE.”
A vicious slash through it’s neck, and the wood was dead again. Kint stared at the body for a second before kicking the head away from him.
Dave saw now, why Jenna had been disconcerted by the man. The madness in him shone clear in the moonlight. He started to move again, his arms numb from carrying her. His fear of the swordsman growing again, by the second.
“If I fall, keep going, it’s not much farther.” Kint hadn’t sheathed his sword, he carried it and the sheath, swaying behind him as he jogged arms back.
Two of the wooden creatures stepped into the path, and the ronin laughed as he swung into them. A third, a pine like the first, stepped out behind Dave, and Kint threw his sheath, cracking the creatures wooden skull. It stayed standing, but focused now on Kint.
“Why did the pine tree get in trouble?” Kint asked as the three stood around him. Dave stepped backwards, away from the fight and Kint winked at the terrified man. “It was being knotty.”
The first dryad, an oak with a mans figure, grabbed at him. A slash to the face slowed him down, although Kint wasn’t sure they had eyes to blind. The next, a pale dogwood with peeling bark stepped toward him, the ronin was forced to jump back to avoid the grab. They were being careful, darting in with quick movements.
The pine was still staring at him, clearly still lost in a daze from the sheath. Dogwood feinted, Oak using the moment to get behind Kint. He spun but the Oak took a few steps back.
‘Another feint,’ ran through his head a moment too late as the Dogwood caught his free arm, it’s wooden fingers digging into his flesh. The Dryad’s fingers were thin and sharp, with a squeal of pleasure it dug it’s other hand into his upper arm. It twisted downward, Kint felt the bone scraping against the edge of the socket.
He turned taking a kick to the leg from the dogwood as he did. The Oak grabbed for Kints face, and he was forced to slash out at it’s hands weakly from his knees. One limb hung by a few thin shreds of wood. The other was chipped but the creature had pulled back.
It was so focused on moving to the side of Kint it never saw the cane-sword sheath coming, Dave already pulling back for another two handed swing. A second explosive blow to the head staggered the creature.
The ronin swung his blade at the knees of the one holding his arm. Another swipe removed the offending arms. The third creature was caught looking between its falling comrades, unsure who to help. He took the decision out of it’s hands with a few quick slashes, one of them at the neck.
Dave was on the defensive as Kint removed the oaks head, it’s focus too deep on the target to even see death coming. “Sheath?” the ronin asked his tone rough. Dave handed it over silently, hurrying over to lift Jenna once more.
“Really man? After all that?”
“Just don’t stop again.” Kint held his arm tight to his chest, glad once more he was right handed. ‘Always the left.’
“Just a little farther?” the man asked.
Kint nodded, looking back to be sure his pack was still on Dave’s back. “Not much longer until dawn either.”
The trees were alive with darkness, even as the night waned far off behind them, it grew deeper ringing the trees. Off in the night, Kint could see a sharp upward curve to the path. The rangers station was at the top of a steep hill.
The light that was always on outside the low building burned bright. The door was locked, and one mangled corpse lay outside. It was clad in green and brown, the rangers uniform but neither of the men could say for sure whether it was even a man or a woman.
“They’re out there,” a hushed female voice said from inside. “They got Harriet.”
“Let the kids in, and call for a med-evac,” Kint told her. “They’ll stop at dawn.”
“I’ve already called everyone I can. ETA is ten minutes for a forest service ‘copter.”
“Good enough,” Kint said. “Wait inside,” he told Dave as he stepped into the building. “I’m going to clear a landing pad.”
The clearing was growing lighter by the moment. The Dryad’s more desperate. “Now or never,” he told the remaining few. Walking toward the path again, he could still see a few pushing themselves into the shade of the trees.
One broke rank and rushed him. He sidestepped the creature, slicing under the arm. It stumbled and the ronin took it’s head in one clean blow.
“I can do this all day,” he called to the shadows of the forest. “I know you can’t. Don’t make me come back here and torch these woods while you sleep. I’ll burn the whole forest if I have to.” A long few minutes followed. To emphasize his point he removed a blue plastic lighter from his pocket.
A maple, it’s form young and female stepped out of the trees, the light of the dawn slowing it. “Mercy,” rang from it’s solid voice.
“None left for fools,” Kint told it. “I come back here, it’s to raze everything.”
The creature died in the light as it bowed, it’s essence forever burnt out of it’s wood husk. As the ronin watched it’s lithe body twisted, flowing upright, it’s arms becoming many. In moments he stared at a strong young sapling
The chopper spun lazily overhead fifteen minutes later. Jenna was aboard and the blond ranger, was getting Dave a lift with a group of sheriffs that were on there way to the hospital.
Kint sat in the back office. Dave hadn’t said a word to him, as he walked past him. The look on his face was enough to show his feelings for the ronin. Kint had taken his bag with a matching expression.
The blond ranger had nodded eagerly when he asked her to leave him and the trees off her report. Kint had put his hand on her hip as he edged into her office. She hadn’t seemed to mind that either.
He wasn’t sure if their story would work, but a bear attack was the best they could come up with. Not a lot of evidence otherwise. A few strange bits of wood. Not that it mattered much.
It was mid-morning by the time Rikki, the now ex-park ranger, was driving him into town. She’d vowed never to step into the woods before they left.
“Are they gone?” She’d held her questions in for a long time, they where near Roseburg before she spoke. She’d taken all this really well, as good as can be expected. ‘Better than most I deal with.’
“It’s their forest, they’re always there, always been anyway,” he answered after a moment, and a long slow glance up her body. “They probably won’t be any trouble, and if they are, I’ll come back.” His smile was more suggestive than reassuring, but she grinned back.
“Who are you?” she asked, as they pulled up to a four-way stop. He put one hand down on the arm rest, letting his fingers fall lazily to brush her leg.
“Most people call me Mike,” he answered, locking her eyes with his.
“That other guy called you James?” she asked, one eyebrow raised. Kint matched her look, sliding a bit closer on the seat.
“Happens,” he shrugged as he spoke. “There a motel nearby?”