As he climbed the stairs leading from Unterbaum to the forest floor, Curtis wondered about the different things that might be found further along the corridor. Part of the city that hadn’t yet been reclaimed, according to Till, and the very notion of that was fascinating.
Human cities were often also built on the remnants of the old world, but he’d never seen it done in quite the same way. The ruins of any human city were left to the ravages of time, weather, beasts, and foliage; after more than a thousand years there often wasn’t much left. This city though—and he imagined most other earthen folk cities—was very different. No rain or snow or wind could ever damage this place.
He imagined rooms, ancient homes and businesses, full of relics from a bygone age. Curtis wasn’t particularly interested in history, nor was he very interested in archaeology, but it was hard not to wonder what riches might be found in such a place. How many fortunes had been left behind by ancient wealthy merchants? How many kings would pay handsomely for the return of artifacts from the old world? At the very least, he imagined the leaders of Unterbaum would gladly pay to have parts of their homeland cleared of beasts.
His thoughts of ancient riches were interrupted by a call from below him.
“Curtis!” Lissa gasped, and he turned to see her slump down to a seated position on one of the sturdy wooden steps. At a glance, he could see that although his sister was putting on a brave face the stairs had nearly defeated her. It wasn’t hard to tell that the wizard was gulping air. For a moment, he felt stupid for not thinking of the fact other people weren’t in the same shape he was.
“Sorry little sister,” he said with a tired smile, moving down to sit next to her. “Let’s take a break everybody.”
The lot of them sat down with varying sighs of relief, the elves most of all. Lissa smiled weakly at him and gave a little shrug.
“Not your…fault…” she panted. “I’m the one…who’s out of shape.”
“Nah, I wouldn’t say you’re out of shape.” Curtis smiled and ruffled her hair a bit. “I doubt you do much in the way of stair-climbing or forced marching in the church.”
“Yeah, but you’d think…I would’ve gotten better by now.” She made a face at him as she fixed her hair.
“What, you mean with all the walking we’re doing?” Curtis chuckled. She nodded, and he gave a little shrug. “Climbing this many stairs is pretty different from walking along a road, I’d say.”
She smiled, and then rested her head against the earthen wall behind them. The group rested for a while, enough that Lissa and the elves could catch their breath, before continuing on. Till didn’t say anything, but judging by his face Curtis got the impression he was amused that the group needed to stop for a rest. Soon enough however, once everyone was ready, they continued up the stairs.
Eventually, after possibly the zillionth step (he lost count somewhere around fifty bajillion), the circular stairs gave way to a small, even-floored little chamber carved from the inside of a massive tree. Several of the small luminous plants lit the room with a pale glow. The group stopped to rest again, Lissa and her elven friends sat down eagerly against one wall. Even Curtis was panting heavily by this point, as were Kern and Gale.
Leaning with his hands on his knees, Gale spat excess saliva as he panted heavily. “What fucking idiot…decided that staircase…was a good idea?”
There were a few quiet murmurs of agreement regarding Gale’s question. Even Till was breathing heavily, though it seemed he would sooner pass out than utter a word of complaint. He didn’t respond immediately, but took several moments to catch his breath. “We don’t normally use the stairways. Main entrances are closed off while the trolls are overhead.”
“Don’t tell me you move troops like this.” Curtis slumped back against a wall, but didn’t let himself sit down. He knew it would only be more difficult to get back up again if he sat down.
Till shook his head. “Most of our troops are already on the forest floor. They were sent out before we sealed the city gates.”
“Have they engaged, yet?” Curtis asked. The idea of wandering through an active battlefield was not a pleasant one.
Again, the dormal shook his head. “Not primarily, only small skirmishes. They haven’t found our gates yet, so General Siegfried is waiting until they do, or until we find the warlord.”
“What about the elves?” Marissa asked. Since the elf was still out of breath, it was difficult to tell her tone.
“What about them?” Till asked.
“You said you were going to help.” Lissa answered for her friend, having recovered more quickly.
The dormal pulled a bit of a face, but after a moment he did nod his head. “I’m not a strategist, don’t know troop movements. But General Siegfried won’t let the elves be overrun.”
Everyone was silent for a while after that, as they finished their rest. Finally, Till wandered over to a door on the opposite side of the room and held his ear to it. With a look back at the group he held a finger over his lips to indicate silence, and then he quietly opened the door and slipped through to the other side.
“Okay, everybody up,” Curtis whispered. “Stay quiet, and stay in line.”
The rest of the group did as they were told, and when Till stuck his head back in to indicate they should follow everyone was ready to go. Curtis slipped out first, moving as quietly as he could, and found that the opposite side of the door resembled the bark of the giant tree from which they emerged. Surrounded as they were by the thick foliage that dominated this forest, there was no way anyone could see them exiting the tree.
Stepping to the side, Curtis turned and made sure everyone made it through, and then he nodded to Kern as the serkethian pushed the door shut with a quiet thump. Once the door was closed, Curtis couldn’t tell that it was there; even after having watched it close, even standing in front of it, he couldn’t see its outline. Shaking his head with an amazed smile, giving Kern a friendly pat on the shoulder, he made his way back to the front of the group. Till led the way, cutting through the foliage to head away from the standard walking path, leading them deeper into the very thick of the Starwood.
They weren’t entirely quiet as they traveled, but at least they didn’t sound like an army. Gale didn’t make a sound, as near as Curtis could tell, and the elves were extremely quiet in their own right; Kern and Lissa were the only real issue. Though they tried, each had their own problems. Kern’s sheer weight made quiet steps difficult, plus his chain armor was a problem and he would tend to catch his horns on branches or shrubs. Lissa tried, but she tended to catch her shield on bushes and gracefulness had never been her strong suit.
Still, neither of them was loud enough that Curtis thought they might attract undue attention. Of that he was exceptionally glad, because the forest was awash with sounds that he did not like. Rather than night owls, rodents, and the wind in the trees he could hear distant troll voices all around. Some howled in wicked delight, others laughed or gave battle cries. Occasionally there was a heavy, reverberating thud. Through it all was a heavy rumbling sound, heavy crunching, and the occasional sound of splintering wood.
“They’re moving the catapults,” he whispered. Just ahead, Till nodded his head silently.
The group continued for a while, and night began to creep in. All around them the massive trees and dense foliage already blocked most sunlight, but now as night actually began to settle darkness surrounded them like an enveloping fog. Curtis looked back and realized he could only barely make out Kern’s large form at the back of the group.
To his dying day Curtis would swear it was Elissah’s will, and not his own decision, that moved his hand to touch Till’s shoulder. The moment he did, and the dormal stopped and turned to look at him, they heard a troll voice not very far away. Curtis felt his heart skip a beat, and in the darkness he saw the whites of Till’s eyes as the dormal also realized just how close they were.
Without a sound, Curtis turned and waved to everyone that they should get down on the ground. He crouched as quietly as possible, and then huddled in next to one of the large ferns. From this vantage he could see that they were very close to the road, not even ten feet away from it. Drowned out by the sound of catapults being forced through the forest growth, the footsteps of nearby trolls had been completely undetected.
Silent, frustrated, and terrified, Curtis looked to make sure the rest of the group was holding still and keeping low. Through the bushes he could see the trolls were now beginning to pass his position. They were heavily armed, and unlike the scouts encountered before these trolls were also heavily armored. First one lumbered past, then a second and a third, and they kept coming. It looked like an entire regiment.
Curtis refused to move. When he felt a cramp start to build in his leg, he grit his teeth and held firm. Cold sweat, despite the warm summer night air, soaked the padding of his armor. The trolls kept marching past, some individually and some in little groups. Most were quiet, but some talked and laughed about horrible things they had done and worse things they planned to do.
The cramp in his leg only became worse. It was getting so he could feel it in his bone, and he desperately wanted to shift position. Curtis held his breath and refused to give in to the pain. Looking slowly to his right, he saw that no one else had moved either. Gale was flat on the forest floor, Lissa and Marissa were each crouched behind a different fern, and the three handmaidens were huddled together on the opposite side of the little trail Till had blazed. At the end of the group, Kern did what he could to make his considerable bulk appear part of the ground.
More troops marched past. Gnolls followed their towering, deadly masters and they were not so quiet. They yipped at each other and there was the occasional scuffle that had to be broken up by task masters. Behind the gnolls marched a tremendous lizard, at least eight feet tall and three times as long, with lightning in its eyes and a burly human riding its neck. The troops that marched past were more mixed now; humans, serkethians, orog, scattered trolls, an ogre here and there. Curtis rested his head against the fern and he prayed.
“Elissah,” he whispered beneath the sounds of the army marching past. “Forest keeper, please don’t let them see us. Lissa is your servant, she loves you with everything she has. Kern shouldn’t even be here. My brother has a good heart somewhere, I know it. The…the elves haven’t done anything to deserve what these beasts would do. Don’t let them see us, goddess, please.”
He didn’t even think about what he was saying, he just prayed. By the time he finished, he suddenly realized that several tears had fallen down his face and his hands were shaking. The army kept marching, rolling past and on toward death, and then it was gone.
Without fanfare, suddenly the last of the army had marched past them. No one moved for long moments, unsure whether or not this was simply a small gap in the order of troops. Eventually it seemed clear that the entire contingent had passed them.
Curtis released a breath that he’d apparently been holding since the last troll stomped past. There was a small, quiet sob somewhere to his right and he was pretty sure it was Lissa. Slowly, agonizingly, Curtis allowed himself to fall backward onto his back as quietly as possible so he could straighten his leg out. As a whole, the group began to cautiously move from their hiding places and look around them once again.
“This is gonna be a long night.” Curtis groaned, massaging his cramped leg.
Till spoke softly, but everyone heard him. “It will take three days to reach the wizard.”