The early morning fog mingled with the bounty hunters misty breath as they hurriedly dressed themselves in the frigid morning cool. The weather reminded Telfor of home, his mind drifted back to his family and filled his thoughts with bittersweet wondering over how they were faring, if they were thinking of him like her thought of them.
Before the questions got too painful he dragged himself back to the present, he was dressed and had checked his pack twice with the military precision they’d drilled into him in the King’s Army. Across the room Vahkragg waited by the door in obvious discomfort, the giant hated the cold. More than two decades since he’d left the desert and he still sulked at a cool breeze. Dropping his face to hide his smirk from the scowling giant, Telfor shouldered his heavy pack with a grunt and stepped out the door.
Stood some distance from the house Jacob and his family were happily chatting. His wife Aria, as well as their son Jack, Aubrey and their child Luke must have gathered to see them off, Telfor supposes. The gesture was appreciated, he enjoyed the time they had spent with the family and knew he’d miss them when they left.
Having noticed the pair’s approach first, Aubrey smiled and waved, prompting Jacob to cut off whatever story he was telling and turn back towards them, beaming at them.
“Finished packing, already, I see.” The old man nodded, “Did you wake your scholar alright?”
A grunt of annoyance broke from Vahkragg, so out of character with the giant’s usual stoic politeness, the reaction won a patter of laughter from the gathered People. Telfor shook his head with a grin, “He’s up, shouldn’t be long. He’s been on the road with us long enough to be used to early starts, but he doesn’t have the same number of years doing it so he falls out of practice quickly when he’s allowed a bed.”
Jacob laughed at Telfor’s answer, but something in it felt off to the grey soldier. The feeling lasted hardly a moment, Jacob shifted uncomfortably in place like how a man without his great confidence might in a crowd of strangers. It also seemed the other adult villagers were also watching Jacob like they were expecting him to do or say something.
Then as soon as it came, the moment was gone. Jacob’s jovial self-confidence had returne and he seemed about to speak when the sound of dirt crunching announced the presence of someone approaching from out of sight, beyond the corner of the house. The old man’s mouth closed, keeping his words safe from being overheard.
From the sound of the footsteps, Pan dressed and ready for the road emerged rubbing his bleary eyes and ponderously working his way through the process of yawning. Telfor assumed he’d come from Jack and Aubrey’s home, they had taken him to stay with them after the first party and kept him since.
The young couple greeted the scout warmly, teasing his weariness like old friends. It was good seeing Pan connect with people his own age, they hadn’t known him before her had died, but Telfor would bet gold that he’d been a different man before then. His skills were invaluable to their business, but seeing the three of them together made Telfor wonder, not for the first time, if they weren’t doing Pan a disservice by keeping him.
“That’s three. As soon as Rubin’s here, we’ll make a start,” Telfor spoke the thought aloud, mostly for Pan’s benefit, when Jacob politely interjected.
“Before you go, Zsófia asked me to invite you all to come and speak with her.”
They way he said it, it seemed to Telfor like he hadn’t said all he had intended to. He understood discretion, and when it was best to respect a man for keeping it, and his instincts and experience with the old man told Telfor that he’d get nothing more from Jacob until the old man chose to share it.
Thankfully, as Telfor debated whether to waste the breath asking, Rubin emerged. More vibrantly coloured in his dyed robes, chosen to complement his rose coloured skin, than even the young hunters adorned with bright and colourful feathers, and tattooed skin. At least the scholar seemed packed and awake for the road, and hadn’t made them wait too longthis time, Telfor thought.
“That’s everyone. Alright, men, the priestess has requested we speak with her before we go, we won’t be taking long so don’t get comfortable.” Telfor barked with familiar authority, before turning to Jacob and in a more civil tone, “Lead on.”
“Aye, this way,” Jacob nodded and kissed his wife before setting off. As the group started across the village, and towards the forest, the rest of their new friends remained behind, waving and wishing them good travels.
Looking back to wave to them for the last time from the back of the group, Pan wondered to himself why it seemed Zsófia, despite her prestigious position within the village kept residence in such isolation. As they passed the last houses before the forests edge, he recalled the fairy stories Aubrey had told him about the forest at night. Of the dangers that lurked in the dark.
At the end of the clearing a small footpath, partially worn into the vegetation through people walking this way in lieu of any design, that Jacob led the group down. Immediately the cold, empty air, became thicker and warmer, but with an entirely unwholesome weight. The trek into the forest was longer than any of the visitors had expected. Telfor grew frustrated at losing the early morning start to this side trip but kept his silence, feeling his debt for her saving his life was worth at least this much. Only Vahkragg noticed the unnatural silence that came from the complete lack of any animals sounds as they passed.
“This is where I leave you,” Jacob spoke quietly, taking the group by surprise with the sudden announcementm Jacob grasped them each by hands one by one in a final gesture of farewell. The silence in the air dissuaded any of them from responding with speech, but they each returned his farewell with the same friendliness he had offered them. Before returning down the path towards the village, Jacob pointed towards a gnarled stump which seemed to glare at them and said, “Her home is just past that stump, be respectful in there, the place has a mind of it’s own… or so the stories say.”
Finally the trees opened into a small clearing, within stood a small, worn down old cottage with smoke slowly rising from the chimney. The dark sloping roof and overgrown walls made the cottage blend seemlessly into the forest, like it had simply grown here in ages long past.
Happy Belated New Years everyone. Best of luck to everyone who made resolutions in completing those, I’m hoping to get back into the shape I’ve fallen out of in the past couple years and finally finish my first novel.
As I’m sure you’ve realised; I’m back! Sort of…
So, the reason this upload is so late without a word is that shortly after I posted my intention to continue this story in January my computer went out of commission, I’ve borrowed a friends laptop to use until mine is fixed on which this installment was written and uploaded.
I’ll be trying to keep a weekly upload schedule this year, so I can give my novel the time it would actually need to be made, but if I manage to keep to my goals you should expect stories appearing at 12pm UTC on Sundays.
Hope you enjoy it,
P.S. Wasn’t able to find the photographer for the Featured Art again, if you know let me know so I can credit them, thanks!