Half skipping, half jogging in anticipation Eryana led the way, heedless of the soaking rain. Jesk stumbled along behind her struggling to hold his cloak tight and keep out any stray drops of rain. His hood fell back time after time, sending streams of chilled water streaking beneath his tunic and down his back.
"Where are we going, Eryana?" Jesk grumbled as he finally caught up to her. Their village had fallen away behind them and Jesk was trying to ignore the definitive presence of Rose Firth looming in the distance. "I am cold and soaked to the bone. I have yet to find this excursion an adventure."
Eryana laughed playfully, dancing a circle around her sodden friend. "It's a secret—I can't tell you, Jesk." As she twirled about, Eryana linked her arm through Jesk's and pulled him down the trail again, laughing all the while.
"We're going to catch the fever out here like this," Jesk complained, jogging to keep up. "I think pixies have enchanted your shoes! You've gone mad running about in the rain like this."
"Hush up, Jesk! Or I will find some pixies to put in your shoes." Her smile transformed momentarily into a thin line, though the traces of laughter could be seen at either corner or her mouth. "I'm starting to think you're turning soft. Where's your sense of adventure?"
"Back in my bedroom where it's warm and dry!" he retorted, tightening up his cloak once more. Eryana's smile appeared again and she shrugged, opening her arms to the sky in a welcoming embrace.
As they drew nearer to Rose Firth the persistent rain subsided and was replaced, much to Jesk's dismay, with a dense, eerie fog. Towering trees turned to ominous shadows on the fringes of the massive swampland and the air grew unnaturally quiet. It soothed Jesk's misgivings a little to see Eryana's steps grow more cautious, though she led on with relentless determination.
The trail they followed narrowed, becoming the only surface solid enough to walk on—a lesson quickly learned after Jesk nearly lost a boot to the muck. "We shouldn't be here," he commented, trying to keep the bite from his voice as he shook the unpleasant sludge from his foot. Eryana continued on as if she hadn't heard him at all.
In the distance a great willow came into view, its majesty out of place in the murky wasteland, marooned on its own little island of plush undergrowth. "We're almost there," Eryana said softly over her shoulder, pointing towards the giant.
"Oh no," Jesk protested, stopping dead in his tracks. "I—I've heard stories about that tree!" He motioned hopelessly towards the towering willow, any further commentary cut short as he caught Eryana's amused gaze.
"So have I, Jesk," she agreed. "They're all true!" Laughing, Eryana skipped off towards the elegant colossus, leaving her friend standing alone in the mist.
"Nothing good can come from this place!" Jesk yelled after her, ignoring the jest.
Eryana returned to his side, annoyance furrowed on her brow. "We're not here to see the willow, so you've nothing to worry about." She grasped his hand and pulled him forward. "Now, will you stop complaining and remember that we are supposed to be having an adventure?" The stricken look on his face revealed she had achieved her intended effect. "I think you really have gone soft."
Jesk avoided his friend's gaze trying to hide the embarrassment glowing in his cheeks. He would never admit it, but Rose Firth scared him. As far back as he could remember, his uncle had told horror stories of the swamp—tales of the monsters who lurked within, the magic that hovered in the air just waiting to ensnare the next passer-by. Of all the adventures Jesk and Eryana had shared, they had never set foot in Rose Firth. Now that they had, it took everything he had not to run back to the safety of his home above the tailor shop. If Eryana knew, he would never hear the end of it.
"Well, as you said yourself, if we don't hurry we'll be missed," Jesk offered, trying to put as much enthusiasm into his voice as he could. Falling into step beside her, he said, "Lead the way, and I will follow." Eryana arched an eyebrow and Jesk smiled. "No complaints."
"It's about time!" She grinned and hurried towards the drooping boughs of the ancient willow.
Checking to see that Jesk was right behind, Eryana parted two of the branches and slipped inside. Rose Firth vanished behind the willow's heavy curtain, and the two friends found themselves in an entirely new world—a surreal oasis devoid of the murky fog and decaying undergrowth. But before Jesk even had a chance to take in the enormity of his surroundings, Eryana disappeared through the opposite branches and back into the swamp.
"Eryana! Wait up a little," Jesk hollered, not sure if he would rather be in the shelter of the giant or outside in the gloom.
Eryana poked her head back through the leaves. "We can come here any time, Jesk, on another adventure. Hurry up!"
"Fine," he muttered, and trudged along after her.
Jesk pushed aside the branches and let them fall back together behind him. The fog had thinned, revealing a lengthy meadow that stretched away into the distance. Abruptly, Jesk's stomach did a back flip—Eryana was nowhere in sight.
Quickly, Jesk peeked back through the branches, hoping that maybe his friend had snuck back inside. But she wasn't there either. "Eryana?" Jesk called, stepping again from the tree's shelter. "Where did you go?" Helplessly, he stared into the mist and across the meadow. In the distance appeared the blurred outline of a cottage. Taking a deep breath, Jesk moved cautiously towards it. Maybe she is in there, he thought hopefully, glancing back over his shoulder as if afraid he might lose sight of the giant willow and be lost forever in the tangled bowels of Rose Firth.
As Jesk drew nearer he realized that the cottage had been long since abandoned. One wall was crumbling, the bricks and mortar scattered about the ground in disarray. The wooden door hung precariously from one hinge, kept upright only by the opposite side of the doorway upon which it rested.
Suddenly, a screeching raven came swooping through the meadow, shattering the silence with its shrill cry and the heavy thrusts of its wings. Jesk jumped and sudden terror sent his composure scampering away in a hundred directions.
"Eryana?" he called again, running a distressed hand through his tousled hair.
Still no answer.
Jesk's insides slithered uneasily. Glancing once more about the mist-shrouded meadow, he stepped up to the crooked door of the deteriorating cottage. All at once an eerie, intense curiosity came over him, and as if willed by some supreme force, Jesk reached out and traced a trembling finger along one of the pale stones. The cold wall seemed to welcome his touch as an unexpected warmth flowed into his body. For a moment the rain and mist were forgotten, his sodden clothing was no longer an unpleasant nuisance. Even his fear subsided, and Jesk felt suddenly compelled to venture into the cottage's darkened innards. Keeping one hand on the stone wall, he crouched and ducked into the small opening framed by the crooked door.
"RAWR!" a voice menaced abruptly from the shadows.