Gren didn't know if she had lost consciousness for a moment or not. Perhaps it had just happened so quickly she hadn't registered actually coming to a stop amidst splintered and tangled branches. She seemed to sense a lack of the solidity she would associate with lying on the earth. She heard the quick definitive whisk of metal cutting air. A long searching stroke. No other sound but the creak of high branches.
She was looking up, and could see the thick tangle of branch and twig towering away above her. She was still gripping her sword tight in her right fist. A drop of some fluid left the blade, subtly changing its balance. She carved a small silent curve in the air with the tip, gently catching the droplet. Gradually, she inclined the sword so it and any others would run up the blade toward the hilt and soak into her gauntlet.
A breath. Long and deep. Ragged, but evincing an effort to make as little sound as possible. She had heard it though, and guessed herself now to be at least twenty feet above it, and several yards off to one side as well.
Another whisk of cloven air.
'Please Goddess, Please let the horse already have run off. Please let it not harm the horse.'
She said this in her thoughts twice through before she realised how odd it was that she didn't know if the horse had indeed run off during the fight or not.
Splintering wood. More of the spear haft? Yes, it had sounded wet, and as though it were in contact with metal. He would leave the head in his leg for now though, or he would lose too much blood too quickly. At least his femoral artery had been where it was supposed to be. Now no sound at all, not even breath.
Gren had been controlling her own breath, keeping it slow and silent despite her lungs' desire to suck in gasps of it. Now she stopped entirely. It was listening. She could feel her heartbeat in her hands. Now all up her arms. Now in her legs and her temples. Now throughout all her body. She concentrated on it, not trying to slow it, but trying to break up the pattern, the rhythm. She hoped the blood leaking from her wounds was pooling in her armour or running down lengthy branches, absorbed in cloth lining or ancient wood.
She concentrated on fire from the poison to take her mind off the fire building in her lungs. Cheek, a long gash. Torso, one just below her right breast, one to the left of her navel. Right thigh, high near the flank. Left thigh, just above the knee. She hadn't felt that fang before, so it must not have been as deep. The taste of the poison was full and strong in her mouth now, overshadowing the blood. A slight stiffness was coming from it in her muscles.
Another slash through the air, this time with a tiny crunch in its midst. A leaf. It was almost imperceptible. She was drinking tea. Her favourite blend from Vermorn, spicy and sharp with a comforting warm embrace. She wanted to smell it. She knew it would smell so good, bring her mind back into focus. It would remind her of grandmother, and the cool air of Autumn, and the Moon, and warm pie, and clouds at night through beautiful bare branches as she crunched through the leaves. Leaves crunching. But she couldn't smell the tea because she was holding her breath. Holding her breath so it wouldn't hear her and cut her head from her neck and hang it from his waist.
'Can't fall asleep again. Can't.'
She heard leaves crunch under a massive weight, and she began to breathe out ever so slightly. She had to get more oxygen in her blood before she passed out again, but she couldn't breathe out too fast. There, finally, enough room and she drew in air, trickling it into her lungs.
No sound. Branches creaking far above. Tiny air movements. A leaf falling. Finally it landed on other leaves, patient in its journey down into the earth to give back its life. No riven air. No deep ragged breath. No clinging sticky smack of thickening blood between armour and scabrous flesh.
Gren continued to wait. She wanted so badly to move even one of the muscles she felt tightening. To swallow and try to make the taste go away for a moment. At least she was breathing. She knew if she moved even a fraction the cradling branches might let her go.
She saw her sword and chastised herself for not thinking of it sooner. The hand that held it was tingling with fading sensation, but still gripping tight. Enough of the fluid had dripped from it to leave a small patch of nearly bare metal. It should reflect just enough. She turned the blade slowly, finding the angle. After a time she could make out leaves on the forest floor. There, a massive hoof print. More topography of their battle. A splash of her blood across several leaves. She continued to slowly turn the blade, now back and forth, scanning what she could of the area below. He wasn't there.
Another five breaths and she would move, perhaps ten. Still no sound. No motion. She turned her head, and branches creaked about her but didn't give way. She looked down now with her head turned. Nothing, only leaves. She moved her left arm to reach for a handhold on the branches, but it was too slow now. Cracking branches let her slip several feet down and outward, muscles now drawn so tight she couldn't grab anything in time.
It seemed that some part of her lower armour had caught on the branches, though she now realised much of the sensation in her legs was gone. She focused all her thoughts on her jaws and lips, trying to intone the short incantation she hoped would free her muscles for at least a few minutes. A loud snap as a large limb cracked further in, and she plummeted down.
The gnarls of limb, bough, and twig fell upward, away from her. She stared in wonder at the deep ancient network, speeding off into seeming infinity. It was though a greater pattern was being revealed, more of a map illuminated as it sped away from her, filling her vision with more and more of its intricate complexity.
'Thank you Goddess, for letting me see this.'
The last leaves were settling on her face. Through them she could see the deeply carven vaults of the great cathedral. No, it was the place she had just fallen from. There were the broken branches.
She was deep in warm brown leaves. She again tried to move her jaw, but it made no response. Her face was now lifeless, unfeeling to her. The gash on her cheek. But it was a cut, not an embedded fang. She concentrated deeply on moving her tongue as she breathed. She thought she could hear a change in the tone of the air escaping her lips, though she felt nothing. She was heartened to realise she could indeed still hear.
She stared up into the vaults of the forest. She pushed her vision outward. She saw the intertwining limbs, one reaching another, layer upon layer, to the edges of the forest. She felt it. Though her skin had lost all sensation, she felt the mass of leaves around her. Extending out, filling a warm brown porous rustling sea. Every curve and pocket a tiny world. She saw an intricate landscape of shape, colour, and mote on the leaf next to her eye. Felt it repeating outward.
She pertinaciously forced air from her lungs, delicately shaping her tongue and lips in her mind, for she could feel nothing of them. Pushing the air in bursts, she could hear the dim whispers of the incantation come from her mouth.
All her limbs and body went slack, as though a stone sculpture had been shattered from around her. She sprang up as quickly as she could, leaves and needles flying about her.
She felt nothing. Her ears began to fill with the sound of the ocean. As she charged forward, the thought of unwittingly breaking an ankle in her unfeeling legs tried to break through, but she suppressed it with the logic that as long as she didn't think about moving her legs, and concentrated on what she was looking for, they would move as they always did.
The right place for them would be near the edge, or within the edge, of the massive tree walls. One fall on the way to the closest ones. Stupid waste of time. The leaves were even deeper near the border of the trees, and piled to great heights within the disappearing black chasms of the thickets. At a narrow gap to the right of one ancient giant, at least fifteen feet thick, and between several other smaller trees she began to dig down into the leaves. Nothing.
She moved a few feet along the border of the thicket and dug down again. This time she gave up before reaching ground, moving farther along again. She thought she noticed her fingers slowing a fraction. Still nothing by the time she reached the level where the leaves had nearly become soil. Now she dug farther back along this same gap, too tight for both arms, hoping for a flash of golden orange. Evoking a breeze from her palm would have been faster, and perhaps safer, but she couldn't afford to spend her strength that way.
There! A speck of bright blue, glimmering with dampness. She cleared away the leaves around it, realising she should be surrounded by an overpowering wine-sweet smell from the settling umbrage, but smelling nothing at all. There it was, a bright blue mushroom cap, darkening to a rich velvet at the centre, but brightening to a glowing luminescence at the edge. Tiny white specks covered its surface, making it look like a bit of early evening summer sky, fallen here months ago.
'Thank you, Goddess!'
She eschewed the urge to regret its type. The poison of a blue astrid would make her terribly ill, but shouldn't kill her. At least it wasn't a vision cap.
Carefully clearing away more area, she saw it was alone, and it was only the size of a large button. It wouldn't be enough. She moved on again, further around the border of the thicket, stumbling on hidden roots as she went.
In another gap she immediately dug further to the back. She realised her breath was in short gasps now, the world around her a deep muffled buzz, as she reached the layer where they should be and found nothing. She moved on.
This next chasm between the trees seemed somehow deeper, forbiddingly darker. Perhaps it was her vision. Her thaumaturgic freedom would last only moments longer.
She fell into the gap and began burrowing downward, farther back from the edge. She concentrated on being careful yet quick with her unfeeling gauntleted hands. Blue! She brushed decaying leaves away. There were several nearly half the size of her fist, and smaller ones as well. Their pale white stalks emerged from the damp crumbling leaves as she worked.
Forcing her hands, knifelike, down into the thick moist leaf bed, she guessed at the depth of the Astrids' root mat. As she cut down quickly all around the perimeter of the group of mushrooms with her gauntlets, she had to concentrate and strain to keep her eyes focused. She carefully gripped inward and brought up her arms. Without enough force behind her unfeeling arms, she nearly tipped forward, but then rocked back and pulled upward. The black and decaying mass came up like a great plug, shifting precariously as she lifted it up, threatening to collapse and fall about. She lifted it only high enough to see that she had indeed gotten the root mat, the actual growing form of which the mushrooms were only a tiny part. Shaking her arms gently, she tried to loosen the thick black duff on the bottom, and free the underside of the mat.
She turned over, still laying on the thick bed of leaves in the gap, and cushioned the mass against herself with one arm as she tried to get a grip on the fang protruding from her thigh. It was pinning her armour kilt to her leg, and seemed to have worked in deeper during the few minutes she had spent searching for the mushrooms. It was slippery with a mucoid fluid, undoubtedly the poison, but the rough metal of her gauntlets caught hold. She pulled it free and immediately began wiping the fluid into the tangled hair of the root mat.
The one just above her left knee came out more easily. It had caught with a glancing blow in the wide metal lace at the top of her high boots. More of the viscous fluid was still on this long thorn, and she wiped it into the tangle beneath the mushrooms as well.
In addition to the puncture from the fang, her right thigh had been cut badly at the beginning by the massive multi-bladed weapon. When she parted her armour to expose her leg she was taken aback by the paleness of her flesh. She must have lost more blood than she thought. Her thigh had several deep gashes, and was coated in blood. She had been prepared to open up several shallow cuts with her dagger to make sure there would be enough blood for what she planned to do, but that wasn't going to be necessary.
She laid the layered mass of root bed, decaying leaves, and mushrooms on her thigh, pressing gently into her blood. Her eyes could no longer focus. She tried her jaw again and wasn't sure it was responding. Her fingers were slower than her commands.
Thoughts of their temperament intruded. Because they were poisonous but not outright deadly, they should be ill-tempered, perhaps recalcitrant, but not devious or blatantly destructive. No time to think. Do it.
Her hands moved in an intricate pattern, almost dancing with each other like mating birds, her thoughts driving her fingers too fast so as to compensate for their stiffness. She commanded words from her lips, but couldn't know if they came.
The luminescence at the edge of each Astrid began to heighten. She willed the words to continue.
In her wavering vision the mushrooms began to rise out of the crumbling black leaves. The mass on her leg collapsed as the root mat no longer anchored it together, and the bright blue and white Astrids tumbled all about.
She continued to press out the words.
Milky white eyes opened on the cap of each mushroom. Iris-less and blank, they winked open like new stars in the evening sky of the Astrids' rich blue. Sections of their white stalks split and peeled away, forming limbs. If Gren's hearing wasn't gone, she could have heard the tiny squilching squeaks which began to come from them as they began to move about, tilting their caps eeriely.
They climbed up Gren's reclining body, clambering over her armour to confront her reeling eyes. She filled her thoughts with what she desired of them, concentrating, bending what was left of her slipping will. Some of the smaller ones moved toward her open mouth, but the larger ones tilted their caps at her obdurately.
If her thoughts were clear enough, she would have been thankful she couldn't feel the moist flesh of the little ones crawling into her mouth and climbing down her throat. After driving her will at them, one of the larger ones reluctantly began moving toward her lips. She was certain the others would bolt as soon as she bit down. Her fingers flexed as recalcitrantly as the astrids.
Gren willed her unfeeling jaws to bite down when the large mushroom had forced most of its bright moist blue cap into her mouth. In her blurred vision, she could see the limbs flailing frantically. Its cohorts turned and ran, her hands striking for two of the largest as best she could. One was caught, but the largest escaped, vaulting down her unmoving body and into the deep leaves with the rest of them.
She forced the last of the one in her mouth past her lips, concentrating on not biting her gauntlets, swallowing quickly but with as much care as she could spare.
The struggling Astrid in her hand glared at her as best it could. She was horrified as she stared at it with her wavering vision. The knowledge that they would all be merely mushrooms again in a matter of minutes didn't ease her revulsion or guilt, and she nearly released it. Perhaps it could still work if she waited until its eyes closed and the fighting limbs drew back in. Perhaps she would be fully unconscious by then. Perhaps it wouldn't work anyway.
She grabbed it with the other hand as well and forced it into her mouth, chewing the struggling form and swallowing as fast as she could.