The story of Jonulsburg continues:
Nautilday, 18th Tulosich, 1130 GY
Today, I find my hands more unwieldy, and you must forgive my handwriting, as it is no doubt harder to read than my usual poorly quilled scrawl. This morning, my left hand came away from the wooden bed with a piece of it firmly adhered to my palm, so that I can only use my right hand now. Even that is limited, turning it seems, into a gnarled claw, much like the old seamstress, whose wrinkled and calloused hands were near useless, forever crooked.
My body aches more today. My legs are becoming more and more difficult to bend. My skin is dry and rough, though this could be more to do with the lack of food and water than the plague which has beset me.
The food this morning was the usual swill for convicts, some watery broth with lumps of old potato and carrot in, a few chunks of fat or gristle from bad cuts of meat. It was pushed through the slot at the bottom of the cell door sloshing most of the liquid onto the floor, as the slot closed without a word. As the days go by, the guards interact with me less and less.
I can’t help notice that moss, or lichen; greenery of a kind, is spreading up the wall from my bed, and the wood of the bed itself, no longer appears as weak and old as it did. It feels that my life is fading, and yet the wood of the bed seems somewhat rejuvenated.
That night, we travelled through the village on foot, scabbarded short swords hanging from our belts, shields in hand, thick booted feet raising dust from the dry mud track. A few villagers followed us, some clutching make-shift weapons, others just watching from a safe distance. They walked on the grass at the side of the track, as though treading on the same ground as us would involve them in some way.
The forest wasn’t that far away, but by the time we reached the edges of its growth, we were sweating and uncomfortable. The men joked about it being the most exercise they’d had in ages, which led to guard Grunberg’s recent marriage and subsequent consummation of such being called into question. He should have been having plenty.
Thick brambles curled out in barbed loops from the foliage on either side of the path, and we made short work of them with our blades, advancing with purpose toward the clearings where the lumbermen worked. The clearing however, was empty of lumbermen, though the tools of their trade remained, covered in thick foliage, and wrapped in brambles, being reclaimed by the nature that surrounded them. The clearing, like the path before it, was overgrown and couldn’t have been in use recently.
We discussed the lack of lumber that would cause problems in the coming months when the wind and snows came, and the temperature dropped. It would be like decades before, when the village had been forced into the town hall when the Frost Father came, so that everyone had the opportunity to keep warm around a large central fire. The lack of lumber would be an issue, and I tasked Grunberg of taking a full inventory when we had finished in the clearing. It was something that needed to be dealt with urgently.
I had reached down and pulled at a bramble-bound woodsman’s axe, surprised at the resistance I met. I cut through the brambles, freeing up the axe enough that I could pull it clear, finding the handle unscathed, while the blade showed spots of rust and corrosion. It still had a decent edge on it. Cutting free the remaining axes and saws, we gathered them up, and made to leave the clearing.
The path was no longer noticeable, overgrown in the short time we had been there. Walking the perimeter, it was impossible to see where the path had been, and I was constantly aware that I was being watched from some unseen eyes. After circling the clearing a couple of times, it was also impossible to spot where we had cut the tools free from the brambles. The perimeter of the clearing, appeared to be moving inwards.
Unable to find the path, we called out through the woods, listening for a call from the villagers so that we might cut our way through toward the sound of their voice. Distant calls reached us, and we recognised the Crier’s voice, bellowing through the woods. With a direction set, we cut our way through. Hacking and slashing at the brambles that tripped and tangled, and snagged and strangled.
We made it out the forest, and into Jonulsburg, where we paused to collect ourselves. It was Ackermann who first mentioned it, and with every passing comment, we could all agree to some extent, that the brambles that hampered our escape appeared to be trying to stop us, with a will that shouldn’t be present in plant-life. Ackermann had been the last man out, and claimed that the brambles had reached out for us, straining to grasp us as we cut our way through their mass. I laughed at his suggestion, and pointed out that, as I had been struggling through them at the front, they would have been pulled from the plants that surrounded them. They would have shaken with my vigour, with my motion, appearing to be straining to hold us, while in reality, it was me straining to escape them.
Ackermann had reddened, Breesburger and Jaeger mocked him mercilessly, and we laughed at the notion that plants were trying to apprehend us. Despite the levity, we were somewhat shaken by the disappearing path, and the way that the overgrown clearing had closed in around us, and agreed not to mention it again until we reached the guardhouse.
The locals enquired about the missing lumbermen relentlessly, and no matter how many times we told them we didn’t know anything, they only stopped asking when we closed the door to the guardhouse, with us on one side, and them on the other. The handles on the lumbermen’s tools were fresh and new, with no signs of rot or damage, while the axe-heads and sawblades showed similar rusty mottling to the first.
With no clues as to where the lumbermen had gone, we examined the tools and waited to see if anything further happened. Grunburg took off his heavier armour, and left to make a note of the lumber supplies, and we waited in the guardhouse for something else to happen, which may shed some light on what had happened.
We sent a message to Lord Jonulsburg informing him of the desperate need for lumber, and he in turn sent a few of his men into the village to recruit more lumbermen. I presumed that new volunteers wouldn’t be forthcoming, and I laughed a little when I confirm now, that no one wanted the job. The lumbermen’s superstitions had been passed around the rest of the village, and the rest of the village wanted nothing to do with the forests.
After darkness fell, the village seemed to slumber quietly. Ackermann and Jaeger came back from their evening patrol, only reporting that the villagers seemed a little restless, and there were more people than usual standing in huddled groups, talking in hushed voices.
I was awoken from my slumber some time later by violent hammering on the door. the force was so much that it rattled in the frame, and it was all we could do to stop ourselves drawing our swords and advancing. The quietness after the hammering was unsettling, as we waited for something, anything, to happen.
One fist clenched and ready to strike, Breesburger opened the door, letting in a cool breeze, and Johan Maus, who stumbled inside. His round face was pale, and sweat ran from his hairline and beaded on his forehead as he told us of the screaming he had heard. His round second chin wobbled as he shook his head, as though disbelieving his own tale. The screams came from the direction of the Junger farm, which stood between Johan’s small, one-storey home and the Dark Forest. As he rotated his brown hat in his pudgy, shaking hands, his eyes flitted between us. With some uncertainty, he told us of the rustling and thrashing sounds which had come closer to his home. He likened it to the wind rushing through the forest on a stormy night, but added that there was little greenery near his home.
I sent Breesburger to wake the other guards while I opened the armoury and started to don my chainmail, strapping the metal plates over it. As I placed my helm on, I could feel the cold leather pressing on my forehead, still damp from the sweat of exertion earlier on. It was an unpleasant feeling, like placing wet footwear back on after drying and warming your feet, but, more personal.
As the rest of the guard’s prepared, I lit five torches in the fireplace, hanging them in the cast-iron rack which was fixed to the stone wall. I paced the wooden floor, Johan’s eyes not leaving me as he continued rotating his hat and muttering to himself quietly. I ordered him to take one of the axes discarded by the lumbermen, and watched as he took it unsteadily in both hands. He worked in the mill, and wasn’t as adept in the wielding of an axe, and it showed by the way he held it, constantly adjusting his hands. His few test swings would have merely bludgeoned his target with the flat of the axe-head.
Taking the torches we filtered out into the cool night, following the dry track west to Johan’s home, which stood dark and quiet. He made to open the door, but found he couldn’t push it open. He started to cry out for his wife and son, hammering on the door with his meaty fists. Grunburg and Ackermann moved around one side of the wooden house, while myself, Jaeger and Breesburger aided Johan in gaining entry to his house.
The cry came from the side of the house at almost the same time as the door caved in. I could not say for certain which happened first, as the next few moments turned our world upside down, and through a peaceful village into chaos.
As the door shattered from our repeated blows, the torchlight gave light to a sight which will forever be scarred into memory. Lenore Maus, and the boy Udo Maus, were both still in the house. They were however, suspended in the centre of the room by the thick, snaking brambles which had burst through the window at the rear of it. The brambles had been merciless, piercing them both in multiple places we could see, and from the blood which pooled on the floor beneath them, many places we couldn’t. Brambles tight around their throats had made their eyes bulge, while their swollen tongues lolled from their open mouths. In places, long, deep wounds left by the tightening plant-life wept crimson, evidence of the thorns and barbs which had been dragged across them.
I remember Johan’s trembling voice to this day as he muttered, ‘Gryke above.’
Grunburg and Ackermann moved behind us, intimating that brambles had almost engulfed the back of the building. I advanced into the one room house, holding my torch toward the thick barbed threads, sword raised to cut the victims down. As my torch neared the prickly shrub, they retreated back, freeing one side of Lenore so she half-slumped, like a puppet with half its strings cut.
I gave the order, and the guards advanced into the house, torches held out as the brambles recoiled from the flames and withdrew from the hut. Myself and Jaeger moved around the side of the wooden home, waving the torches at the brambles, which retreated, like rats scurrying for cover.
After a short time, the brambles withdrew completely, no longer just moving away from the torches, instead, they outran us, disappearing into the darkness out of the light. We decided against working our way to the Junger farm. With our torches being the only light, we could easily have been encircled, and ended up like Johan’s family.
We moved back to the house, to deal with the bodies of Lenore and Udo, and to comfort Johan. Grunberg complained of a painful scratch on his leg, and it was when we returned to the guardhouse, that we finally saw the tiniest of scratches beneath the dark hair on his calf. We laughed, breaking the tense atmosphere, and joked about him receiving a little prick. Hah.
It was a shame our laughter didn’t last as long as we would have liked.