Neik gazed at the forbidding landscape as the chest drifted slowly closer to the shore of Evela. The heavy evergreen forest came right up to the shore, with only a narrow boundary of gravelly beach separating the last trees from the water. The debris from the waves wasn't much higher than the gentle waves against the shore, which told Neik that tide was probably in at the moment.
The sea chest finally bumped against the gravel of the bottom, coming to rest about ten feet out from the edge of the water. Neik considered jumping, but then reconsidered when he thought of the cold water. Instead, he waited, and after a time, saw that the tide had turned, as was going out, leaving the chest behind. As he waited for the sea to retreat, he studied the forest.
As ominous as it had seemed from a distance, the forest didn't seem all that bad up close. The trees were primarily spruce, pine, and hemlock, with a few leafy birch mixed in, but the wood wasn’t particularly dense or forbidding. Low lying shrubs filled in the gaps between the trees, promising Neik a difficult march to travel up from the shore.
Eventually, the sea retreated, leaving Neik’s makeshift raft on the pebbled beach. Groaning slightly as he slid off the chest, Neik opened the lid on the chest to see what he had been traveling on.
The lid of the chest flipped open to reveal sacks of salted herring, the salty dried fish tied in ten pound bags of oiled sail cloth. The sight of the oily treasure caused Neik’s stomach to rumble in a reminder that he hadn’t eaten in a day or two. Pulling one of the bags from the chest, he untied the cord holding the cloth closed and grabbed one of the salty slabs of fish.
Chewing on the meat of the herring, Neik considered his resources. There was no telling how long he might need the herring before finding other food or rescue, so he would have to preserve the chest. He also considered moving the chest further up the beach, but it was a large chest, and he would have to empty it to be able to drag it any distance. Instead, he wedged a few larger stones on the down slope
side of the chest in the hope that the next high tide would not wash it away.
Taking one of the sacks out of the chest, and closing the lid to preserve the remainder from any weather, Neik plunged into the forest. As he had guessed, the tangle of brambles blocking easy progress and grabbing at the oilskin trews covering his legs. He noticed as he struggled through the canes that they were blackberry, although not yet in fruit. It was apparent that there was food to be had here, so he wouldn’t have to depend entirely on the fish.
A dozen yards into the forest, the trees began to grow larger, and the ground cover thinned, leaving a heavy carpet of pine needles and dead wood as the only cover between the trunks. An occasional call of a bird was the only sound to break the hushed silence that had replaced the swish of the ocean surf.
Trekking through the woods, the young man glanced around, trying to notice any memorable trees that he could use as land marks, should he ever need to return to his landing place. Unfortunately, the boles of each tree seemed like every other, and Neik was unsure that he would be able to retrace his path. The occasional clearing provided some variation, but one clearing was much like another. The direction of the sun wasn’t much help either, since this land was so far north that the sun never set, and south was more a matter of opinion than fact.
Neik had continued in this manner for an hour or so, covering two or three miles in what he hoped was a generally straight direction when he emerged into another clearing. However, this one was different, since it was a plowed field. A small house of trimmed logs lay on the far side of the field.
Being careful not to trample the garden, Neik walked down the rows of potatoes, cabbage, and other vegetables to approach the house. “Hello! Is there anyone there?”
“I am here, man.” A voice called from behind him. “I’ll thank you for not stepping on my crops. What is it you want?”
Neik whirled around to see a small person standing on the tree line to one side of where Neik had entered the clearing. This person held a short bow, an arrow strung, although not aimed at Neik. “Pardon sir, I was crew on a ship that went down in the sea. I was fortunate to have been on a chest of ship’s stores that washed ashore near here.”
The small bowman stared at Neik for a few moments before returning the arrow to the neat quiver slung over his shoulder. “Sorry lad. I thought you might be one of those rambunctious young men from the village. It’s not close… about 10 miles from here, but they sometimes come this far for mischief. I am Bernard.”
As the Bernard approached, Neik studied him closely. Although he was obviously older than Neik, Bernard was only a little over five feet tall. He was dressed in homespun wool and leather boots. Bernard wore a brimless, floppy hat on his head, long dark hair streaming to his shoulders. His ears peaked through the hair… and they were slightly pointed.
“You’re an elf!” exclaimed Neik. He’d heard of such things, although it was always folk tales, and never from someone’s direct observation.