I can feel my heart hammering in my neck. Images flash through my mind’s eye: men in ringmail atop mighty destriers; rippling containers of barely-sheathed muscles; pink-scarred faces that contorted with snarls; axes, swords and spears whirling through the air.
My left arm tingles where a spear caught me, hundreds of years ago. Five years ago.
Gormund’s teeth are knocking together as he wrings his hand around the length of his axe. He watches the horizon, implacable. I think I see shadows moving between the trees. As a bluster of air rattles through me, I understand I’m still a little damp. Sweat-slick and lake-slick and slippery. Vertigo opens wide, threatens to consume me.
I’m not supposed to be here. My muscles twinge with long-forgotten maneuvers. Newly-remembered exercises. Drills. But my body is soft and stupid.
I tense up, ready. I’m still not sure if I see anything. Perhaps just trees. Or perhaps something darker.
Gormund uncoils, wraps his hand around my wrist. “We have to move,” he tells me.
“Did you see anything?” I ask.
“Move!” He shoves me forward, sloping down. There’s a sound behind me like a giant’s groan. There’s thunder, I think. And something behind me cracks. Gormund is right behind me, nearly stomping on my heels as I push through the tall grass that rises up to my waist.
The forest envelopes me, trees rising like the black spears of the army that surrounded me when the Great Evil captured me seven years into my quest the last time around.
I can’t remember the name of the army. Just the flash of steel and the ash-coated spears that smeared onto the gloves of the warriors that surrounded me. Blood had dried on me and them, red-brown like lacquer. I’m getting distracted, I realize.
Gormund’s hand presses onto my back. “Don’t slow down!” he tells me. “Don’t look back, you idiot!”
Thick trees snap behind me like breaking bones. I pushed myself on. I’m so tired that I hardly notice the blisters on my feet from the hours of working until they pop and sting as I push myself forward. There’s a stitch in my side.
I grit my teeth and fight through the pain. Walls of stones emerge all around me like teeth to maw of a gaping giant.
“You’re not running fast enough.” Gormund growls. “Move! Move!”
Gormund seizes me by the back of my neck and hauls me forward. I sail headlong over a hill and out of the forest.
Forests should be bigger than that, I think.
Gormund follows close behind. He dives down just next to me, twisting so that his back feels the brunt of the impact. He sits up, rubbing his lower back. “Knees hurt. Back hurts. You’re lucky, One-Eye. At least you go back to your younger years when you return.”
“What was that?” I ask. “What was that?” When I look, the forest is gone. A mountain rises from the earth, dirt and soil spilling over, churned-up as the gray stone rises, higher, higher, higher.
I’m not sure how long the silence lasts before I say again, “What was that?”
“Something Clarissant should have warned me to look out for. Gormund curses under his breath. “You might feel some vibration when we sleep tonight. Don’t worry. It’s just the strata sorting itself out. I’ll wake you up if we need to move again.”
“Uh uh,” I tell him. I seize his arm, and a warning flares in his eyes. I don’t let go. “Nobody’s going to pull the whole dark and broody and mysterious on me. Not this time! What. Was. That?”
He turns to his, his face implacable. “The Imperium salted the earth with spells after you left. Too many uprisings. They needed to impede communications. Hard to stage a revolution when you can hardly make it to the next town.”
“About one-third of those words made sense to me,” I tell him. “What Imperium? Revolution? Uprising?”
He pulls his arm away, turns. “You’ve been gone longer than I thought,” he says. “There will be time to explain later. We have to get back before the land moves again.”