The wood was known to be enchanted. It was dark and deep, and at times there was a certain stillness which blanketed the land the way a dense fog settled upon others. Sunlight didn't filter through the trees so much as certain patches would illuminate during various hours of the day. Few were so foolish as to be caught in the woods alone at night. Fewer still ever returned.
Jacobias stood at a fork in the road, furiously examining the paths before him for any sign of a trail. Wherever the thieves had gone to, they had been certain to hide their tracks well. No footprints, no signs of disturbances along the trails, nothing. It was as if they had come to this spot in the road and simply disappeared. A subtle breeze played through the trees and caused the patches of light to dance around him. Just as he had made up his mind to randomly select a trail, the glitter of a few strands of hair fluttering on a low hanging branch caught his attention.
"So it is to the right!" Jacobias took a moment to check his sword in its scabbard before setting off down the trail.
The wood grew dark and darker. Still there was no sign of where the thieves might have gone. By the time the last vestiges of light were twinkling out of the trees, Jacobias was hungry, weary, and still had not found a single trace of his quarry. Taking note of the dim outline of a fallen tree, he settled himself against it to rest a moment and regather his thoughts.
"Perhaps there was a gaming trail which the thieves knew to follow? Or perhaps they pushed on until they were clear of the wood? I would more readily believe them to be ghosts, so little of a trail they have left in their passing. Yet they must be in these woods."
A chill passed through him and he glanced down at his mean apparel. "When I catch them, I shall be sure to make them pay for the indignity they have made me suffer."
A ghostly laughter drifted through the trees at that, as if the very wood were mocking his plight. Furious, Jacobias stood and drew his blade, defiant against further insult. The laughter resounded once again, slightly louder than before and he thought he might have detected the sound of music as well. He backtracked a few feet down the path until he was certain that it was indeed the jaunty sound of a flute joined in with certain merriment which had attracted his attention.
"Oh what fortune, it must be they! But I cannot continue back this way. They may have spies within the wood. Best to leave the path and chance danger."
Jacobias slipped off the trail and started towards the sounds of civilization. He kept low and moved within the shadows, using the thickness of the trees for concealment because of his great height. Bramble clawed at him as he moved, scratching against his flesh and catching at his shirt here and there, so that he scarcely dared to move except when a great tumult of noise from the revelry was certain to add to his stealth. By and by, he smelled the sweet aroma of a supper cooking and finally he managed to perceive the gentle glow of a fire.
It was here that Jacobias took stock of his surroundings. He could only hope that he had not been seen within the wood until he could determine once and for all if this was the den which he sought or if he would return to town, bested by a troupe of thieves. In the distance, he spotted the outline of some rocks which seemed to offer him a place from which he might hide, and perhaps catch a glimpse of the revelers nearby.
Having noticed no further signs of movement, Jacobias contended himself to wait until another particularly boisterous round of laughter afforded him the chance to clear the distance to the outcropping of rock. He held firmly to his blade and lowered himself to his belly whereupon he inched himself along the ground bit by bit until he dared to lift his head and see for himself what there was to see. Beyond the rocks were a series of huts set up at random here and there to blend in with the bramble of the wood. Several lines had been strung from the trees to hang various items of clothing and cookware. None of which seemed to be that which was lost. A fire burned merrily off to the side of the huts whereupon a small collection of people were sitting on logs and rocks. Some were eating off of wooden plates while one person was merrily playing a flute, and yet another was dancing maniacally around the campfire. He narrowed his gaze and began to count the figures around the fire. Half a dozen at least and the camp looked as thought it might hold at least double that. This would be trouble.
A shadow moved in front of the fire as one of the revelers rose and moved away from the group towards the huts. He watched the figure carefully, lest he change his course and get to close. He was a rather large man, potentially as big as Jacobias was, with wild voluminous hair. It was his attire that caught Jacobias' attention, however. The man wore only a pair of pants. He watched this man until he disappeared into the darkened hut, whereupon Jacobias made up his mind. He slipped back down behind the rocks and waited until one by one the revelers took their leave of the fire. He waited until the embers were nearly dead and the huts were only a vague outline against the stillness of the wood. Then he crept down towards the camp, crawling on his hands and knees until he reached the hut in question.
The door had been left open. Jacobias could see the outline of a man sitting in a wooden chair in the darkness. Jacobias rose to his feet and ducked into the hut. The man remained seated and regarded him coolly.
"You know why I've come." his sword caught a bit of the light from the dying fire and glinted with murderous intent.
"I have been expecting you. I thought you might join us sooner."
"If I had only known I was expected, I would not have kept you waiting."
The man rose from the chair and hunched his shoulders. He placed his hands upon his hips and met Jacobias' gaze. The men sized each other up, each one coming to the conclusion that they appeared to be the equal in size and shape. It would be skill or cunning which would determine this day.
"You have taken something from me, I would have them returned."
"Would you rob a man of his dignity in his own home?"
"No less than the turn you paid to me."
"So it has come to this...you must know that you will never leave these woods alive."
"My fortune has held so far."
A grin crossed the thief's face. He spread his hands and a pair of silvery daggers materialized within them. "These woods cares little for fortune, my friend. They grow wild on the blood of the brave and foolish."
"Then the trees shall feast this night." Jacobias made ready his blade.
"You boast, sir. No man can best the skills of myself or that of my men. It shall be a meager offering at best."
"This metaphor regarding the trees has gone on long enough. Besides, at this proximity they would thirst in vain."
"Oh no, I don't intend to bleed you out on the floor of my hut. That's what the altar is for."
Jacobias frowned up at the thief, the hairs along the back of his neck standing on end.
"I fight you until you fall, then we drag you to the altar and let your blood spill for the trees."
"So that wordplay...?"
"Completely serious, friend. Why do you think we let you into our camp?"
"If only. Shall we?" the thief drew nearer and Jacobias took a half-step back towards the door.
"But a moment more..."
The thief halted and gestured with a dagger for Jacobias to continue, "By all means."
"These trees have told you that they want blood?"
"Well the Hart Tree did. From what we've gathered it's the dominant tree in these woods. We've all survived because we've spilled blood in homage to that tree and garnered the protection of the woods. So we shall pay homage tonight and the wood will let us stay on a little longer."
"Friend, what if I went willingly to this Hart Tree of yours?"
"You came all this way to die in these woods?"
"Something like that. What I mean is...if I come with you to this Hart Tree, will you give me back what you took from me?"
"Of course. A man should die with dignity."
The thief moved into the shadows so that all Jacobias could see was his figure twisting this way and that. After a moment or two, he returned and held a small cloth bundle out towards him. "Do you need a moment?"
"If you don't mind?"
"Not at all...just don't try to go anywhere." The thief brandished his daggers by way of warning.
"Oh not all." Jacobias chortled as he moved into the shadows. The material was still warm, and it wasn't altogether a pleasant experience to be wearing a pair of pants warmed by someone else, but they were his and he had them back. Now he only had to live.
"Alright, sir, now take me to this tree and there we shall conclude our affair."
"I would have your sword then."
"Not at all, but I will sheath it to show my good intent." And with that, Jacobias returned his blade to its sheath and rose his hands into the air.
Satisfied enough, the thief marched him through the door and into the suddenly bustling camp. It seemed the rest of the camp had caught onto the disturbance in their midst and responded with weapons and torches. They mumbled amongst themselves of this fool who would be their next sacrifice at the Hart Tree, but Jacobias paid them no mind. We moved at his leisure through the camp. The thief took him past the huts and down a small path to another clearing within the wood.
There, in the center of the clearing, rose a grotesque, gnarled, tree. The tree was black as burnt wood and Jacobias couldn't help but notice a strange flickering as if the tree was actually still burning. There was a rhythm to the reddish light, like the steady beating of a drum. He almost thought he could hear it as well, the cadence of his death march.
"The Hart Tree," His executioner said and he nodded towards a slanted rock at the foot of the tree. "You'll want to get on that and-"
"May I look at it?"
"At the tree? Only if you keep your hands away from that sword."
"You have nothing to worry about from me there. I shall keep them in the air, just like this."
"Uh huh. Lower them a hair and you'll be dead where you stand. My skill with a knife is unmatched even at a distance."
Jacobias took note of this detail as he moved closer to the tree. This was not just his imagination. He could hear a beating rhythm. And upon closer inspection, he noticed that it was not just a light which flickered across the tree, but the plant was leaking some manner of sap as well. He moved around it several times, each time around he raked his eyes over the surface of the tree.
"Are you done now? It isn't as if we have all night."
"Quite so, I am satisfied. If only you would tell me what manner of sap this tree is leaking."
"It isn't sap, my friend. It's blood. And soon yours will be added to it. Now if you don't mind, the altar-"
"Ah yes, the altar. But that does seem like an awfully mundane way to go. How many throats have been slit there? You told me, however, that your skills with a knife were unmatched, did you not?"
"Then here, let us make a sport of this. I shall stand here upon the altar," Jacobias leapt up onto the stone and stood with his hands widely outstretched, "a fine target, wouldn't you say? And you aim for my heart. The logical conclusion is that I shall fall back upon the tree and bleed out. This should satisfy all requirements, should it not?"
The men began to mumble and then cheer this idea. It seemed to them that if they had only thought of this sooner, they might have made better sport in the past. Egged on by his companions, the aforementioned thief could hardly refuse this last request.
"Very well then...it's your funeral."
"Indeed it is. Oh, one more thing. Let's make this sporting and why not do this blindfolded? Your companions will be able to see me and so there will be no fear of trickery on my part. If you miss, it shall only be your pride wounded."
The others chuckled at the increase of odds and after a moment or two of conjecture with his companions whereupon they determined if they even had the means to make a proper blindfold and the merits of listening to this last request, that the thief finally consented. He was blindfolded and a pair of guards were stationed near enough to the tree that Jacobias couldn't flee. Nor did he appear to be readying an escape as he had not moved an inch on the altar.
"Are you ready to die now?"
"I am ready for your blade. On the count of three?"
"By your count."
"Very well: One. Two. Three."
The knife flashed through the air to the cheer of the crowd. Even the guards had taken their eyes from Jacobias to watch the skill of the blindfolded thief. A thunderous groan overshadowed the cheers from the onlookers, the latter of which had concealed the audible thunk of the knife as it struck the Hart Tree and not Jacobias. Jacobias had let himself fall back as he counted, trusting that the incline from the rock would make it difficult to perceive his movements. He landed hard against the back of the tree, as anticipated, but the knife had flown true and struck the tree in the center of a heart-shaped carving. Jacobias had noticed the strange image while watching the dull glow from the pulse of the tree. The tree twisted and groaned louder as blood-sap flowed from the mortal blow. The entire wood shuddered and the very earth began to tremble. The thieves, distracted by the death pangs of their woods, hardly noticed Jacobias scramble to his feet and flee back from the Hart Tree. He ran, fast as his legs would carry him into the wood. The cries of the men were soon behind him, but the woods were in complete disarray. He could hear the snapping of splintering branches, and the crashing of falling limbs all around him. He watched them fall like parts from decaying corpses, and still he ran. He knew that if he stopped, if he paused, he would be dead. His only saving grace were the higher limbs of the trees, but it would only be so long before those came down as well.
His heart throbbed within his chest and his lungs ached for air by the time he finally saw light at the edge of the wood. With a last burst of speed, he emerged from the crumbling forest into a field. Jacobias tumbled and fell to the ground, gasping for air. He began to laugh then as he watched the enchanted wood fall, not because he was glad for the lives that would be lost, nor because of his triumph, but because he was alive. He would go back to town and he would have a drink and relay his tale. The people were free of the enchanted wood and its dangers. And Jacobias? Jacobias had found his pants.