One could see the treeline ending even from afar. Little by little spruces were replaced by pines, under which grew small, sad-looking birch saplings. They hadn’t been walking for long when the woods suddenly grew sparse and led them to a small hill. From the top of the hill opened a view to a large marsh. The occasional beam of sunlight reflected from the dark ponds as the clouds broke apart momentarily, blinding the travellers’ eyes. Luuneyd had to squint after the long dark of the forest and nearly lost her balance when Zirekel walked straight into her all of a sudden.
“Sorry,” Zirekel said. She was shadowing her face with her hand and glowering at the sky. “Bloody sun. Can’t even see where I’m going. At least it was nice and dark under the trees.”
The sky was still covered by a thick, gray mass of clouds that boded rain, but Zirekel’s eyes were used to the dim, artificial light of the underground mine cities, just like most of the citizens of the northern orc kingdoms. Sudden bursts of light hurt her eyes.
Theodius was already standing on the edge of the hill and peering at the marshes, both hands covering his eyes. The small, purple-skinned nordling mage was more accustomed to daylight than Zirekel, but even his eyes were more suited for the long, dark turn of the year of the north. Only Giendei seemed entirely unperturbed by the sudden sunlight; he came trudging from the woods after the others, and his skin almost seemed to glow everytime even the smallest bit of light touched him.
“Were we followed?” Zirekel asked him.
Giendei shook his head. “I don’t think so. I haven’t seen any signs of soldiers since this morning.” He looked around curiously. He always managed to look like he’d wandered in by accident, even if he’d just spent the past day in the woods running away from an enemy.
“No wonder, considering what animal trails we’ve been following today,” Zirekel huffed. Her expression darkened. “Speaking of. Hey, nordling, where to next? If we want to avoid the marshlands, we’ll be forced to follow the treeline for miles and miles around.”
Theodius didn’t bother turning around. “We’re not going around anything. Passing through the marsh is the safest option at the moment.”
“Are you crazy? We’re all going to drown if we traipse through there.”
“He’s right,” Luuneyd said and touched Zirekel’s arm in a soothing gesture, which didn’t much calm her nerves judging by her expression. “Even if we’re being followed, there’s not a single captain who’ll order their soldiers to cross the marsh for a couple of runaways.”
“That’s not going to comfort me when that creep leads us straight into a bog.”
“The North is the promised land of marshes, Zire. You do know that. He knows this sort of terrain better than the rest of us.”
Theodius had sat down on a treestump, seemingly not paying any attention to the conversation taking place behind him. He stuffed his trouser legs into his boots, fastened the helavyö belt on his waist over his coat and tugged his spare puukko – a short nordling knife – out of his boot, hanging it from his belt to join the other one instead. He looked up when he heard the grass rustle and noticed Giendei standing a few meters away, peering down at the marsh with his brows furrowed.
“There are no marked paths down there whatsoever,” he stated, gaze wandering from right to left as he examined the terrain. “Are you sure that you know the way?”
The question was completely sincere. Theodius remembered hearing that elves had a keen sight and that they could see leagues away from high places, and he was rather sure that Giendei knew, better than the two others, what the journey ahead of them would be like. Theodius got up and walked beside Giendei.
“There is no proper road through the marshes,” he said. “I’ve never been in these parts before, but I can guarantee there’s a way across.”
“How can you be so sure, master mage?”
“Marshes aren’t uncommon where I grew up. If we exercise care and travel slowly, we will reach the other side.”
Giendei surveyed him with uninhibited curiousity, and Theodius didn’t question why. He’d likely never seen another nordling before; the northern border had been closed to outsiders for centuries, and there were no diplomatic relations whatsoever between the two races.
“Please forgive me. I don’t believe we were ever properly introduced,” Giendei enunciated. His voice was melodious and he tended to stress the second to last syllable of each word as he spoke. To Theodius’s surprise he bent into a deep, smooth bow. “Giendei the Verdant, or Giendei il Verdeggiante in the tongue of my people. At your service.”
Theodius’s smile was amused. His half-bow wasn’t anywhere near as natural as the elf’s. “Theodius son of Äijö of Fallgrove. And likewise.”
“You bear the same name as one of the mages of the ancient Nordwar, Theodius the Great. He is known as Teodioso il Grande among my people. How should I address you?”
“Just Theodius will do,” he answered. “I’m not much for formalities.”
Giendei answered his smile. He had green eyes, much like his name indicated, that appeared strangely bright regardless of the light. “Neither am I, truth to be told. Well, Theodius son of Äijö, how do we proceed?”
“Giendei, was it?” Theodius asked. The elf’s name contained sounds that were alien to him, and he wasn’t quite sure if he’d heard right. “What do you see growing down there?”
“Moss and some manner of saplings that seem to carry yellow berries.”
“Does that benefit us?”
“It does indeed. The berries don’t grow in the soggiest places.”
“Ah. I think I understand.”
Theodius resisted the temptation to tell Giendei that there were leaves and pine needles tangled in his hair. He hadn’t quite decided yet if it would be polite to point it out or not, when Zirekel snarled and interrupted his thoughts.
“The day’s waning, gentlemen. Let’s leave before we get visitors.”
She and Luuneyd had packed their cloaks in their rucksacks in the meantime. Luuneyd fastened her colourfully embroidered pocket to her waist once more, with a long dagger hanging on the other side. Her low boots had been pulled over her trouser legs and her dress adjusted with the help of her belt so that the hem reached to her knees.
Theodius unsheathed a knife and cut a nearby willow into a long stick. He did the same to another willow and tossed the other stick to Giendei.
“What about us?” Zirekel asked.
“You have an axe. Use it,” Theodius said coolly and thrust the knife back into its sheath. “Let’s get going. And watch where you step.”
He started wading downhill through the grass without looking back. Giendei glanced at him, then back at Luuneyd and Zirekel, and eventually strode after Theodius, waving the walking stick as he went.
“That twerp is leading us all to our deaths,” Zirekel mumbled as she and Luuneyd followed after the other two.
Thick tussocks of moss seemed stretch on further than the eye could see. They gave with each step, occasionally followed by threatening splish-splash beneath one’s soles. Theodius tread lightly from one place to another, but Zirekel’s boots were already soaked after the first few minutes. She understood very quickly that the mage’s technique was right – you had to keep moving, and it was not wise to dawdle anywhere, at least if you preferred to stay dry.
In the afternoon the sky grew darker and darker still, though the sun must have still been high in the sky. Leaden clouds floated oppressively over the marshes, and though it wasn’t raining, the occasional drop would make the surface of a pond quiver. Theodius didn’t slow down despite the diminishing light. The path he was following was winding, but took them inevitably towards the forest looming ahead.
Here and there grew golden berries that almost seemed to glow in the twilight. Luuneyd grabbed a couple in her hand as she went and put them in her mouth.
“Are they edible?” Giendei asked in worried tones.
“Of course. They grow even by my village.”
“We might as well bring some with us,” Theodius said. He had stopped some way off on a tussock that stood a little higher than the rest. “We’ll have to make camp as soon as we reach the other side, and the night will likely not be pleasant.”
Luuneyd nodded solemnly. They were facing another night without a fire. Fire could be seen far away in the dark, even as far as the other side of the marsh, and they couldn’t afford announcing their whereabouts to every patrol in the area.
Giendei ate one of the berries, looking thoughtful. “An unusual taste. What are they?”
“We call them by the name ‘valokki’,” Theodius said. “Gold of the marshes.”
“In the borderlands they’re called cloudberries,” Luuneyd pointed out.
“What does it matter what they’re called, as long as they’re edible,” Zirekel huffed.
It started drizzling as they continued their trek. They pulled cloaks out of their backpacks for some shelter from the rain, and the remainder of the journey took place in watery silence. When they reached the edge of the marsh and hurried under the cover of the sturdy fir trees, it was already growing dark. Theodius led them to the twilit woods with practised ease. Zirekel followed right at his heels, and it did not take long until they found a recess between large boulders that could provide them with shelter overnight. Around and on top of the boulders grew firs whose lowermost branches kept the worst of the rain out, and they set up their tents underneath them.
Zirekel remained standing while she ate a quick supper. She wrapped the cloak more firmly around her shoulders, took her axe and glanced at the others. “I’ll keep watch tonight. The rest of you, try to sleep.”
She pulled the hood over her head and vanished in the shadows. Despite her big size she moved like a ghost in the dark, and her footfalls didn’t leave a single sound or clue about her whereabouts.
Luuneyd spread a cloak on the ground to serve as a matress and wrapped herself up in her blanket, rucksack acting as a pillow. Theodius had seated himself at the very back of the camp, back against the cold rock. He held a knife in his left hand while he ate, and his dark eyes stared unblinkingly into the darkness of the woods. He didn’t shift when Giendei sat down next to him.
“Eat,” Theodius said and dropped a handful of berries on his lap.
Giendei watched how he twirled the knife in his hand. He asked quietly, “do you think we’re being followed?”
“Perhaps. I heard howling just now.”
“Wolves?” Giendei blanched. He was about to get up to grab his bow and quiver, but Theodius just let out a hoarse laugh.
“There’s nothing out there, I’m just teasing you. Listen.”
Giendei listened. Now that he concentrated he understood the forest was full of sounds of life. The rain, the muted echoes of night birds, the rustling of small animals in the trees and the undergrowth. He sighed in relief and leaned against the rock in a more relaxed manner.
Theodius shot him an amused glance. “If I tell you a secret, will you sleep more soundly tonight?”
A lopsided grin tugged at the mage’s lips. He dug out the old, worn out skull that Giendei had seen him use for his spell-casting before from his cloak. “I left a small memento on the path just in case we’d be getting company. The screams ought to give us enough time to react.”
“What kind of memento?”
Theodius’s grin widened. “The unpleasant kind.”
Giendei couldn’t help but burst out laughing.