The woodland track, part 1

This tale was told to me by a rather shady character who I did not fully trust, a crow. Crows are untrustworthy, that is a fact, as are most birds that favour carrion as part of their diet .They are normally the familiars of witches or messengers of goblins and other foul creatures. You must understand of course that not all birds can talk, that would be just absurd.  But this crow was different, he claimed to hate pestilence, disease, death and all things unpleasant. Unlike most crows who thrive on it. The fact that he would even talk to a gnome in a civil manner is in itself a marvel, crows despise us gnomes. And while rambling about minding our own business it is not uncommon for us to get mobbed by crows in the way they would mob a bird of prey. But this crow would regularly land on my shoulder and whisper all the comings and goings he sees in his own world. In particular the comings and goings of a particular track in a wood. Its location he would not divulge and I could almost feel the pleasure coming from his hoarse voice as he told me his tale, hence why I never fully trusted him.

The wood was old, the floor was covered in a thick layer of damp moss, littered with the dead leaves of autumn. It had an earthy smell like recently cultivated land. It was damp and moist, and a peculiar stillness gave the feeling of being constantly watched. Birdsong was absent in the wood, it was an unnatural feeling place, yet it was so natural at the same time. A most unusual, and terrifyingly unforgettable place. The floor, as I have stated was covered in thick spongy moss, save for the track that cut through it. It was about the width of a large cart, if you don’t know how wide that is then imagine the width of two large horses with enough room either side for a man to walk. The track was well used, instead of being covered by moss the track was hard and dirt covered, tree roots stuck out here and there along the edges of the track. Every so often a large stone was set aside it. They marked the 500 meter points so travelers would know how much further till they broke through the other side. On either side of the wood where the track started, or ended, depending from which way you entered, was engraved on a large rock “pass 5 stones and you shall see the sun”. On one stone, beneath that engraving was a more crude engraving, barely readable and very easily missed to the non-inquisitive. It read “number 3, beware the red caps” some of you may have an inkling as to where this is headed, some, as did many who passed the stone engravings, will not.

“Damn blasted crow, piss off will ya, d’ya see this stupid bird, Sam, stupid bloody thing”. “Oh stop ya winging man, kill the thing and save my ears from your irritating voice”. Sam and Adam, two traders, laden with goods from the docks, mainly fine fresh lobsters, loaded on the back of a cart in wooden barrels full of sea water to keep them alive and fresh, they would fetch a pretty price at any market, and the further inland they went, the higher price they would fetch. They were just at the edge of a wood, it was during the cold months, the trees in the wood were bare, the surrounding countryside was bleak and hostile, dark depressing grasslands stretched for miles. Only the odd woodblock broke up the depressing scene that surrounded them. “What a dump this part of the land is, not a tavern in sight nor a lady to warm a mans woes” Sam grumbled in his broad country accent, relieved that the crow which had been flapping around him had given up on its seemingly pointless attack. The crow stood at the base of a large stone, pecking at it with its beak. “What’s up with that bird Adam, ay, look at it!” “ oh shut up” replied Adam, “ let’s just press on, look, over there, rain clouds” Adam was not wrong, over the barren moorland were dark grey rain clouds, they appeared to be heavy and full, as if they were about to burst, which I suppose they were.

The pair had passed two of the stones lining the woodland track. Rain poured over the landscape, it dripped through the bare thick trees and onto the ground below, the soft moss soaking it up. Sam and Adam had their hoods up and heads down, their moods reflecting the weather, miserable. Rain had curbed Sam’s complaining for now. The two travelled in silence, save for the horses hooves slowly dragging laboriously along the track, the sound of the cart it pulled, creaking as they went, and a barrel that had come free from its restrained position was tapping annoyingly between another barrel and the carts edge. The relentless rain pours made it hard to hear anything, the deluge was accompanied by the odd crack of thunder, its immense crack echoed throughout the countryside sounding as if the earth itself had split in two. Over the rain and thunder came the screech of a crow, Sam looked up into the low hanging tree line, he squinted as the rain drops fell into his eyes, poured down his face and dripped off his unshaven chin, the crow was perched in the trees, hopping from branch to branch to keep up with them, screeching as it went. “Halfway” bellowed Adam, “look, there is the third stone, only two more to go, then were out of this place and into some more barren land I dare say”, there it was, sat by the track side, a large stone, half the size of a man, the top was covered in a cloak of moss, rain poured down it and onto the floor, thunder rumbled overhead. In the trees the crow screeched frantically as the thunder rumbled, Sam, who was sat next to Adam was still staring at the bird, “what do you think is wrong with it, do you think it can smell our tasty lobsters Adam?” . . . . .” “Adam”….. Sam looked to his companion, Adam was still there, but he would not hear Sam’s complaining ever again, not with a crude, filthy looking arrow sticking from his chest. Sam stared at his friend, Adams face was still, eyes and mouth open, and blood seeped from his mouth and mixed with rain water to pour diluted down onto his chest and soak into his clothing. Sam felt his heart sink, he could not remove his eyes from his friend, and terror tore through him like a rapid infection in the blood. The cart stopped, the horse lowered its head and scraped at the muddy ground with its hoof. Sam slowly turned his head to the front, his heart stopped, tears welled up in his eyes as he stared in the direction the arrow came from. “I don’t want to die” he whispered to himself, “I don’t want to die” again he said but more loudly, then, as thunder cracked he shouted as loud as he could “I DON’T WANT TO DIE”. The only response he got was a grin, and a low chortle. He stared at the creatures to his front, short, about four feet, pale pink like coloured weathered wrinkled skin, long pointy noses and terrifying grins with an array of sharp brown teeth. Six of them, some wore rusty mail, some wore clothes that were not fit for a peasant. All wore red caps that hung halfway down their backs, pointy ears protruded from the sides of their heads. The rain beat down harder. Sam felt his body jolt as the loudest crack of thunder echoed through the dark sky, he looked down, an arrow bedded in his kneecap, his arms fell to the side, he rolled his head back and stared into the trees, up into the dark rainy sky, the last thing he saw was the crow, hopping around enthusiastically, then he felt the harsh grip of cold hands around his neck, and the world went dark.

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