The party left Khladnetz in the dead of night. Fifty saddled bakhmats and ten more burdened were there. Ymdaton insisted that the journey should be done while the sun is absent.
The first reason was to reduce the number of people who knew about their undertaking. No one saw them leave and there was little chance that anyone would see them on the road. Ten sacks of gold were a tempting prize after all, it was better to keep them away from greedy eyes.
Not only men were his concern, but also the forest. While things in the woods had little interest in material wealth, they could still try to lead the caravan into some trap. That is why traveling under the shining stars was preferable.
Despite the utter importance of the mission and the great value of their carriage men were not showing anxiety. They did not break discipline with unreasonable jolly like a bunch of drunkards. Yet their moods were ever light. They were rarely silent, always discussing something: the recent war, the past ones, their deeds, deeds that they have heard of, routine at Khladnetz, and life at distant home. They told jokes, sometimes heartless and visceral, fitting the warriors, sometimes obscene and low, customary among men.
Crewslayer enjoyed the time that he spent with his peers. Since he joined High Crew he did not have a lot of opportunities to do so. They were together on the way from Isary, that was when he learned their names and ways. Since then crewmen were separated more often, than united, following their own assigned tasks. After all, they were the chosen warriors of Abeneewy, whenever lord of the house had a need of a trusted man to perform his will, he would ask one of them.
There was the special air of bravery and open mindedness about them. Ymdaton was proud to be the part of this force. He felt like he was in a band of heroes, one of those that old songs often told about.
They did not meet any obstacles on the road thus far. By Crewslayer's estimations the caravan was to reach the lake Volnitza in six days. Time passed quickly when his soul was soothed by the fine company. It was only under the low rays of setting sun, when he was alone in silence, just after camping or just before setting off, that he felt strangely uneasy.
It was a cold heavy feeling in his gut. Sometimes it appeared as a premonition that helps to dodge a sudden swing in battle. But there was no battle and no blade fell. Sometimes it was a pressure at the back, urging him to turn and meet a gaze of someone who was staring at him. But there was no one.
These feelings began poisoning his calmness until it was rotten and falling apart. Several days passed and Ymdaton could not even distract himself with idle chat when they were on the move. He analyzed the world around, listening to each of his five senses in turn, trying to understand his disturbed state piece by piece.
Many interesting facts were unveiled by him in this way. It was uncomfortably hot both at night and in the day. It felt like bathing in the sea on some of middle islands where the water was as warm as the air. His skin tingled slightly, he did not understand why at first. The reason was revealed to him by him when gazing at the trees thoughtfully. Their leaves were still completely. There was no wind, not even the slightest movement of the air.
When discovering this he looked up at the sky and found a solitary cloud against the stars. It was there, brilliant white at the top, deep blue at the bottom during daytime, it was there, as a salty stain on night’s dark velvet. As long as he observed it, the cloud did not move a bit.
Then there were sounds, or rather the absence of them. It was not noticeable when caravan marched, but in hours of rest there fell dead silence. The forest was not always quite, Ymdaton learned in during the past year. His first ever impression with it was false, for there was always a beast sneaking through the bushes, or a bird cleaning its feathers among branches.
He learned to hear all of this and distinguish noise of the woods from other sounds which can signal the coming attack. That was the art of survival in Odwitchni. But there was silence which conceived ringing in the ears. As he walked around the camp during day halts, he began stepping with extreme carefulness, for his thread felt loud and thundering among the absence of any other sound.
His perception became sharpened on a verge of paranoia. Tiniest details which Ymdaton wouldn't have even noticed normally, now screamed to him. This state revealed to him the next disturbing sign. The road under their feet was virgin, unblemished, as if no one stepped on it in a hundred years. That was absurd, for the passage that led to the lake was a popular trading route.
Goods of the forest were brought by it to Qyris, while goods from over the seas were carried back. There were no marks of passing caravans. Since kinani party was moving during nights, Ymdaton stayed awake while sun was up several times. He observed the road from a distance, hoping to witness at least enemies from other city states. But they were alone on that track.
He started stopping the caravan on the move. Sometimes he climbed a tree to study stars for almost an hour, sometimes he walked circles near treeline, searching for deviations. He achieved nothing but weird looks from his peers. They thought the forest was driving Ymdaton mad, and, perhaps, it did.
Again and again he found proofs that they were on the right way, that this was true lake road. Conflict between obvious facts and the sickening feeling exhausted Crewslayer.
One of these days Abimnupal approached him, when they were advancing under the starlight. His friend rode alongside Ymdaton for some time silently. Crewslayer expected some pleas to get himself together, some warnings that crewmen intend to strip the crazy commander of his authority.
“You feel it too?” surprised him the warrior. Ymdaton wanted to answer something, but did not find right words, “The wrongness in the air,” added his friend.
“I thought I was turning insane,” said he quietly.
“I hate this place. It will be the end of us.”
“Because it is no different to the bottom of the sea. There live ancient terrible things that even the stars were unable to slay. And we are but men. You know, I believed in Asytenisar’s dream. I imagined my daughter being married to some lord among the trees, whose gold was beyond count. I’ve collected a formidable dowry for her, while being there. Did i tell you how I bought a house for a single motley feather?”
“During the counter attack at the breach I killed some wealthy land dweller. His helmet was adorned with a feather of weird colours. I plucked it out, thinking it might be of value. Little did I know that the cost was stupendous. When the siege ended, I showed it to Radomir. It is a pity that you did not see his eyes at that moment. They became as wide as gold coins. He told me that was a feather of a rare bird which lives only deep in eastern groves. I asked if he is interested. He obviously was. I asked of a price. He did not even say anything about gold. He offered me his other house in Khladnetz. A fine thing of three storeys, with several supporting buildings, a large yard and so on. All for a single piece of some parrot’s tail.”
“We should go hunting after this bird later, you and I,” chuckled Crewslayer, “Let’s drive Radomir into poverty.”
“But my hopes dwindle more with every day spent in this damn place. The woods will swallow us eventually. Even now they are working on it, I can feel and you too.”
“They tried before,” said Ymdaton, feeling surprising resolution, “It won’t be any different this time.”
Several crewmen were left on watch while others slept during day camping. It was Crewslayer's turn now. He patrolled back and forth, guarding his brethren. Even bakhmats were silent, using the opportunity to regain forces. That unnatural quietness that engulfed the forest was beneficial for one thing at least: no one could have moved within ten steps of the camp without Ymdaton hearing him. That made a watch easy, or so he thought.
Because of this confidence, Crewslayer did not even notice a solitary figure sitting on the grass just beside their steeds. The intruder was clad in a cloak of deep green color, which made him even less visible. The clothing obscured his body utterly. Ymdaton glaced around and saw no other watchmen, they were in the opposite corners of the camp probably. So that guest was his personal shortcoming. Crewslayer unsheathed his blade and approached the figure.
“Show your face and announce your name,” said he loudly, making threat be heard in his voice.
The figure did not move even a little. It answered with a raspy laugh.
“Do you not recognize me? I thought we were introduced to each other quite closely.”