Don and Dog took point while Justin and Shandra walked together behind. She had taken quite a battering from the girtablilu and her own berzerkergang took its own toll. Justin watched her carefully for signs of fatigue. The question was that how much was fatigue, how much was depression at the terrible surroundings and worry over her family, and how much was plain boredom from the endless walking.
After a moment Justin found himself stepping into tepid water that felt ice cold after the burning rocky land he had been traveling. It was much darker than the black plain so it took time for his eyes to adjust. His other senses adjusted more quickly. The air was full of moisture and the angry hum of mosquitoes were in his ears.
“I'm right here,” Don said in low tones. “Not sure where this swamp is but it is the right direction anyway. More life.”
“All I hear is bugs,” Shandra replied, “I bet there are spiders.”
“Dog?” Don asked the hellhound. The hellhound took a couple sniffs then Don nodded, “Okay,” he drew that out, “there are spiders here. Big ones too about the size of my hand and other bugs as well as various other shadowlings. So yay. We're on the right track.”
“I hate spiders,” Shandra and Justin exclaimed together.
“Good to see you agreeing on something,” Don laughed and Dog chuckled in dog-fashion.
The swamp was shallow and low clouds hid the moon every time it appeared ready to reveal itself another cloud would slide across the moon blocking it out. However, starlight was reflected from the black water below them. Justin began to hear the sounds of movement in the swamp further out quiet splashing and the drip-drip-drip of condensation dripping from the drenched moss.
The water was as ripely rich as any cold water swamp with rotting smells everywhere. Moving slowly and carefully they managed to stay out of sinkholes or other obvious dangers. Somewhere not too far away something let out a long, low roar that shook water droplets from the leaves and moss into the water below and gave Justin a start.
“That's just a croc or an alligator,” Don said calmly. “Although, by the sound of it an almighty big one. I'd just as soon not stay around to see if he's angry at us for trespassing on his swamp.”
They slogged through the water as quietly as they could. Most of the swamp was flat water with reeds and dead or fallen trees. Other areas were raised above the surrounding water and covered thickly in trees and undergrowth. Most of the trees were alders or cedars. When one of them inevitably rotted and fell it would leave a large gap in tree line until other trees grew on its back. These nurse logs could make a nasty tangle so Don avoided leading his party near the taller mounds. They stepped under an arcing trunk of a vine maple cluster and found themselves in a dark cold rainforest.
The trees were a mixture of deciduous trees that had lost their leaves for the season and old evergreens that were hundreds of feet high. The old evergreens blocked the light from the full moon over head and they could barely glimpse it along the path as they passed through heavily moss covered maples, alders, and cottonwoods. Undergrowth was thicker beneath the deciduous trees and thinner beneath the big cedars, spruces, and hemlocks. Don could smell fir trees not too far away and the moldering remains of this year’s berries and the mast on the ground beneath the bushes. The duff under the trees themselves gave off a dustier smell almost like old books in an attic.
They heard the clattering of hooves and a light started around them. Centaurs both men and women were surrounding them,Don carefully put his nocked arrow back into his quiver.
“Do you live in this realm?” Don asked in what Justin recognized as passable Centaur speech.
“No!” a Centaur man stepped forward looming over Don, “we are lost here,” he answered in Common. “We do not know how we got here.”
“We thought you were more of the goblins that haunt these woods. I hate this forest of ever-night. I do not know how long we have been here but the sun has never rose and this moon has never moved in the sky. I do not care for most forests. We live on the plains to the cold band side of the Empire. Our forests are smaller and know their place in things not these wagon thick trunks and leaves piled a foot deep everywhere.”
“I can help,” Don said with relief in his voice. “I can get you out of here. Although the journey will almost certainly be dangerous.”
“What about us?” A small voice piped almost at Shandra's shoulder. She spun on one foot and almost drew her weapon only checking herself at the last moment not wanting to provoke the centaurs.
“No!” the centaurs' spokesman said angrily. “You kill us every chance you get. You set traps for our strongest and try to lure the weaker off the path with your tricks!”
“You chased us in here!” the goblin replied. “You were hunting us like animals. What did you expect us to do?”
“You were trespassing!” declared the centaur, “And furthermore --”
“No, not another word,” Don said to both men with a forcefulness that stopped them with surprise. “I will guide you both out or neither. Step out where we can see you.”
A surprisingly tall man just a shade under six feet stepped out into the silvery moonlight. He was dark complected and Don suspected quite green in the right light. He had what Victorians would have called elvish ears pointed at the tips and swept back and a long fall of what in this light was black hair but Don was again certain it would be a dark green to match the light green of the goblin's complexion in a normal light.
“I am Don Silver-Arm of the Order of Saint Michael, once of the Shadow Queen's own Guides and this is my daughter Shandra Silver-Arm and son Justin Silver-Arm.”
Justin seemed surprised at the name but he had known for years that Don saw him as no different than any of his other children. Justin was more surprised looking at the goblin man. Other than a slight 'rounding' of his features and his green complexion he could have been an elf. Goblins had always been found on Earth (at least in myth) but did they have their own realm in Faery? Justin was so caught up in examining the goblin that he almost missed the introductions.
“I am Tolbiac Son of Peppin,” the goblin introduced himself.
“I am Sunwolf of the Ten Bears tribe,” the centaur replied reluctantly.
“Good, I find that people are less likely to hunt down and kill someone they can sit down and talk with,” Don said with finality. “Not that talk solves everything. However, just getting us out of here is an improvement and I know that even if it is nowhere near where you came into the Shadow-Lands you will eventually be able to make your ways home if you are patient.”
“Fine,” Sunwolf ground out between gritted teeth, “a shadow warden can find the way from here. I care not if the goblins find their way with us.”
“You are gracious,” Tolbiac murmured.
“Thank you,” Sunwolf replied trying his best to be gracious.
“For the pain we have caused you and yours here I ask your pardon,” Sunwolf said. “We could have been looking for a way out. Instead we continued a needless fight.”
“I also apologize for the times we struck without need but out of spite,” Tolbiac said quietly. “If we are both still here it is because we were both foolish or unfortunate. Either way my people say we ourselves are to blame for our fortunes good or bad.”
Other centaurs and goblins began slipping into the moonlight. The centaurs were not a beautiful people like the elves but were a handsome people with clean limbs and features and proud expressions. The goblins were what Justin would call beautiful or handsome depending on whether they were a man or a woman and almost but not quite elfin.
Don sorted out the order of march with Justin and Shandra separating the two rival groups to prevent misunderstandings or attempts at revenge. Walking through the forest the centaurs were hardly quiet. Their hooves snapped and bumped roots like a herd of elk. Justin had seen and heard elk at home so he was used to the sound. The goblins were as quiet as he expected. While at one time goblins had lived in isolated villages and small hamlets mostly farming or harvesting the bounty of forest and water they now lived a nomadic life.
With the arrival of humans in the Known World they had been displaced and for a while lived as slaves of the Empire. Now they kept to the deep forest for the most part or joined Traveler caravans. They were a dwindling people. Seeing their distress Justin determined that he would try to find them a new home. The lands of the Tuathe De were broad and mostly empty perhaps the goblins could take the old royal city of Tara now long abandon. While Justin was musing he stepped into broad sunlight on the terrace of the monastery at Bridgetown.