The Long Retreat No. 9

Hrothgar Hrafnssen knew these woods, experience gleaned over a decade of logging the foothills the city nestled in. Here, away from the mountains, the best trees had been culled long ago, but the lodgepole pines still stood straight and tall. For more than thirty leagues, the forest stretched north, the the land growing more rugged along the way. Here, it was gentle, near enough to the mountains to undulate on the same scale. In a few leagues, it became a maze of steep-sided canyons, crisscrossed by fast-moving streams weaving their way toward the Syderskogflod, the river at the northern edge of the great wood.

They’d turned off the road as they passed into the forest, heading northwest until the trees and gathering darkness screened them from the cleared land before the city wall. Hrothgar judged they had gone far enough and turned toward the sound of running water. He chose his footing carefully, and saw that Alfhilde followed his lead. Good. The last thing he wanted was for some unseen dip or root to catch a foot and turn an ankle.

Alfhilde whispered, only just louder than the breeze through the branches overhead. “Where are we going?”

Hrothgar lifted his shoulder. The diviner had left more immediate questions unanswered, as well—all that lay between them and the Syderskogflod was trackless wilderness, but for a few lodges, widely spaced along the road north to the fort at Flodsvadgard, and a handful of logging camps. They had no supplies, no equipment, and no map. They had lived to escape the city, at least, but Hrothgar knew these woods. Their yawning, malevolent vastness had never felt so near at hand.

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