“We should get away from here,” Yothyr whispered to Hrekh. “We’ve found ’em. They’re dead. Let’s go.”
“Aye, we’ve found ’em,” Hrekh answered calmly. “But what killed ’em, eh? We need to find that out.”
Yothyr sighed through his teeth and scratched at the stubble on his chin. “We don’t need to find it out, Hrekh. We need to go back, say we found ‘em, and tell the rest not to come here. I don’t want to end up like ’em. Gods’ bones, I don’t.”
The two foragers stared at the remains of their five friends: torn apart, riven from nave to chaps, eyes put out. You could not tell man from woman among them. Death had undone them all some two days ago, or thereabouts.
Every eighth day, foragers were sent out into the Gorenwald: the endless forest of grey, dead trees that spread away from the roots of the mountain range where Tumenfell — the fortress-state of the southern borders — rested. Their task and purpose varied: scavenging for valuables, hunting out the Gorenwald’s denizens to bring them back for medical study, or undertaking errands for the King. There was much talk about the nature of such errands but then there was much talk about the nature of the King. He had names that were spoken when he was not present; old Sick-eye; the Butcher of Barneth; the Yellow King. Though the King had not given them the errand himself, the word had been passed to Yothyr and Hrekh that they were to journey to a certain part of the Gorenwald and report on what they found there. These instructions had led them to the corpses of their mates.
“What did they disturb out here that could do this? What were they sent out to seek for?” Hrekh asked, awed.
Yothyr grunted and spat into the undergrowth. “It doesn’t matter. It’s all death out here.” He waved a thick forearm at the forest, and then cocked his head. “’Ere, what was that?”
“Nothing. The wind that whistles between your ears, most likely,” Hrekh replied.
“Let the Gorenwald take you! I heard somethin’.”
“It’ll take you afore it takes me, son. I’ve been out here foraging some thirty winters. I know its ways better than most,” Hrekh said.
“Aye, well, doesn’t mean you’re not more deaf in the ear than me. I tell you I heard movement, and it weren’t the movement of a man.”
“Huh. You tire me sometimes, Yoth. I’ll do as you bid but mind I’ll tell ’em it was your wish to return, not mine. You’ll have some answerin’ to do once we’re back in Tumenfell.”
“I’ll answer for it. They can warm my feet on hot coals. They can lock me in one of the pits and leave me there. I’ll not be here searching for something that undoes a man’s flesh as easy as a knife guts a pig.”
The two foragers turned away from the slaughter and began to make for the tunnels that would take them safely back into the mountains. It wasn’t far to travel, which troubled Yothyr’s mind. Usually, it was a good seven day walk before a forager encountered something vile out in the Gorenwald. The great forest didn’t get dense and dark as truth until then — out where you had to start lighting your alcohol lantern by day and night in order to see clear ahead.
Hereabouts, the sky’s light still made it through the trees to show the way. The things that could do a man most harm out here lived in shadow and dreaded the light, or so he’d been told since he could first listen and learn.
What’s happening now then, he thought. What could be coming so close to our walls?
Yothyr didn’t get to think on it further as he was interrupted by Hrekh’s piercing scream. “Yoth, it’s got me! It’s bastard well got me!”
Yothyr had precious little learning, so he could barely discern what he was seeing; beyond thinking it something born of a nightmare. The thing clutching at Hrekh’s scalp was like a hand, only made of long, thin bones with wiry hairs growing from the knuckles. As it moved, Yothyr glimpsed the soft, translucent bulb of flesh that must have been its body, and he felt his stomach churn violently. He counted ten limbs, maybe more, all cutting swiftly at Hrekh’s flesh. Yothyr heard and felt the crack of bones breaking as blood darkened the breast of Hrekh’s tunic. His companion’s last word, mouthed silently, was, “Run!”