You can feel your heart rippling in your neck. Images flash through your 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.
Your left arm tingles where a spear caught you, 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. You think you see shadows moving between the trees. As a bluster of air rattles through you, you understand you’re still a little damp. Sweat-slick and lake-slick and slippery. Vertigo opens wide, threatens to consume you.
You aren’t supposed to be here. Your muscles twinge with long-forgotten maneuvers. Newly-remembered exercises. Drills. But your body is soft and stupid.
You tense up, ready. You’re still not sure if you see anything. Perhaps just trees. Or perhaps something darker.
Gormund uncoils, wraps his hand around your wrist. “We have to move,” he tells you.
“Did you see anything?” you ask.
“Move!” He shoves you forward, sloping down. There’s a sound behind you like a giant’s groan. There’s thunder, you think. And something behind you cracks. Gormund is right behind you, nearly stomping on your heels as you push through the tall grass that rises up to your waist.
The forest envelopes you, trees rising like the black spears of the army that surrounded you when the Great Evil captured you five years into your quest the last time around.
You 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 you. Blood had dried on you and them, red-brown like lacquer.
(You’re getting distracted, you realize.)
Gormund’s hand presses onto your back. “Don’t slow down!” he tells you. “Don’t look back, you idiot!”
Thick trees snap behind you like breaking bones. You pushed yourself on. You were so tired that you hardly noticed the blisters on your feet from the hours of working until they pop and sting as you push yourself forward. There’s a stitch in your side.
You grit your teeth and fight through the pain. Walls of stones emerge all around you like teeth to maw of a gaping giant.
“You’re not running fast enough.” Gormund growls. “Move! Move!”
Gormund seizes you by the back of your neck and hauls you forward. You sail headlong over a hill and out of the forest.
Forests should be bigger than that, you think.
Gormund follows close behind. He dives down just next to you, 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?” you ask. When you looked, 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.
You’re not sure how long the silence lasts before you 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,” you tell him. You seize his arm, and a warning flares in his eyes. You 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,” you 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.”
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