Thom came across the footprints as they emerged from a shallow stream and headed west, deeper into the wood. Though moderate effort had been undertaken to hide them, they still stood out to his sharp eyes like a beacon.
There should be no footprints at all in the Howling Wood, especially not hastily concealed ones.
He followed the trail because it was his job. As a Vilka, one of his duties was to make sure no one wandered into the Howling Wood. For more years than he could count, those on the outside had assumed the Vilka did this for their safety. It was an assumption the Vilka were happy to let the world make. It kept stray travelers and curious adolescents out of the forest, making their job much simpler.
Yet there they were, footprints in the wood. Scuffed footprints in an erratic line, separated by as many as twenty meters in some places, but still footprints.
Thom followed the trail west, into one of the darkest parts of the wood. The trees here were massive, with trunks more than twice the breadth he could encircle with his arms and branches as thick as his torso. Their leaves spread a heavy canopy that blocked out any sunlight bold enough to attempt the journey to the forest floor. That meant there was very little undergrowth and the space between the colossal trees was open and empty. The trail of the wayward wanderers was easy to follow through the wooden columns and Thom kept most of his attention focused around him, alert for any sign of attack.
It was easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by the empty space in this part of the wood. It created the illusion any attacker would be visible but the trees still hid much from view and the lack of undergrowth meant a predator could approach without sound.
A predator native to the wood could approach without sound, that is.
Thom heard the clumsy attack a full three seconds before his assailant came into view. The heavy thud of a booted foot, the whisper of steel sliding past leather, the rustle of bulky armor. Any one of those sounds would have given Thom more than enough information to identify his enemy, plan a suitable defense, and brace for the attack. All three together made it child’s play.
The soldier came blundering out behind Thom and to his left, breathing loud enough for the entire forest to hear. Thom waited until the man was within striking distance, then pivoted left, twisting into the attack.
The double-edged sword sliced through empty air where Thom had been standing and before it completed its arc, he lashed out with a foot, low and precise. There was only a hint of resistance as his blow connected with the soldier’s shin and sent the man toppling to the ground.
A fraction of an instant later, Thom drew his own elegant, curved blade and held it poised over the man’s throat.
Thom saw right away that he had misjudged the identity of his attacker. He wasn’t a soldier, at least not one in the employ of the throne. His armor bore no seal, no crest, and the sword he carried lacked the heavy brass pommel common to royal soldiers.
Yet he was an experienced warrior, probably even a formidable one in circumstances more in line with his training. The lack of fear in his eyes marked him as courageous and confident, but the fact that he had already released his grip on his sword meant he possessed enough wisdom to know when he was beaten.
A mercenary, then. Hardly better than a soldier. Maybe worse.
Thom removed his blade from the man’s throat and extended a hand.
The mercenary ignored the offer of help and came to his feet with a fluid grace that didn’t seem possible for his bulky frame, reclaiming his weapon as he did so. He glared at Thom with blue eyes as cold as the steel he held in a deceptively loose grip in his right hand.
Thom held his own sword in a similar manner, so that he would appear relaxed to the untrained eye, but he was ready to act at a moment’s notice if the mercenary showed the slightest hint of aggression. When the man didn’t speak for several long moments, Thom broke the silence. “I’m a Vilka, I’m—”
“I know what you are,” the mercenary snapped in the refined accent of Achlesas. “Why are you following us?”
Thom raised an eyebrow, surprised by the audacity of the question, the candid admission that he was not alone, and the accent. It was rare indeed for anyone from the plains to venture into the wood, rarer still for them to be moving west, toward the mountains and Kalnis.
“If you know who I am,” Thom said, “then you know why I’m following you.”
The mercenary grunted and slid his sword back into its scabbard.
Thom leaned to his left to look past the broad shoulders of his verbose new friend. “It’s alright,” he called, “you can come out now.”
There was silence for a moment, then the unguarded footsteps of those unaccustomed to moving in silence announced the precise location of those traveling with the mercenary. They emerged from behind a tree in single file. The first was a reed-thin man dressed in the fine, though presently tattered, robes of a royal advisor. Behind him was a woman wearing the plain, functional clothing common to Kalnis. The wrinkles on her face marked her as elderly, but her silver hair was long and beautiful and her eyes held a fire unmatched by most women a quarter her age.
Thom thought the old woman was the last of the party, but trailing so close behind her as to be almost hiding in her skirts, was a child. The child’s face was smeared with dirt, short blond hair hung to just above wide eyes that seemed too large for the small face. When the child stepped out from behind the woman, Thom could see it was a boy of perhaps nine or ten. Though he might have been younger. He was tall but so thin he made the wispy advisor appear bulky by comparison.
The boy’s eyes met Thom’s and he dismissed the possibility that he was younger than his initial guess. The eyes, though wide and more than a little afraid, held a wisdom that was out of place in such a young face.
When they all stood in front of him, Thom smiled and looked each of them in the eye. “My name is Thom,” he said, his voice soft and inviting. The Vilka were not known for their hospitality or kindness to strangers but Thom liked outsiders a good deal more than his brethren did. “What has brought you to the Wood?”
The advisor cleared his throat to draw Thom’s attention to him. “I’m afraid that is none of your concern.” He was shorter than Thom but still managed to look down at him over a long nose as he spoke.
Thom continued to smile as he answered. “I’m afraid it is. I’m sure you know wandering through the Wood is not something we encourage.”
“If there was another way, we would take it,” the man informed him, his already high voice rising even higher at the end of his sentence. “But we have need of great speed and this is the fastest route to our destination.” He spoke with the nasal whine of Kyupta, a fact which served to deepen the mystery around this strange band of travelers.
“Which is?” Thom prompted.
The mercenary stepped in front of Thom, blocking his view of the thin advisor. “None of your business.”
Thom kept his smile in place but he could feel his patience wearing thin. “I’m going to have to insist that—”
The mercenary moved fast—so fast Thom didn’t even see him reach for his weapon before it was pressed against his throat. Of course, Thom was just as fast and he had the tip of a long knife poised just below the man’s ribcage in the same breath.
Thom locked stares with his opponent, still smiling, and cocked an eyebrow at him. “I think we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, here,” he said, withdrawing his knife and stepping away from the mercenary as he did so. “Please, tell me your names.”
Silence greeted his request. The mercenary continued to stare him down, sword drawn, though lowered for the moment. The old woman and boy would not meet his gaze. The tension heightened as the seconds passed and Thom was beginning to fear he would be forced into a real fight when the advisor, the apparent leader of the odd flock, spoke.
“Put that thing away, Solomon.”
Solomon obeyed, sheathing his sword without taking his eyes of Thom.
Thom nodded his thanks and patted the man on the shoulder as he stepped around him. “And you are?” he said to the advisor.
“Quentin, Advisor to the Steward of Kyupta,” he said, his accent becoming more pronounced as he spoke his title. “You’ve already become quite familiar with Solomon, I believe. He’s our—” Quentin hesitated, obviously searching for a word other than “mercenary” that could describe Solomon. “—escort,” was what he decided on. Quentin turned to his left and gestured toward the old woman. “This is Danielle and her grandson.”
Thom waited for the boy’s name but none came so he nodded at each of them in turn. “Pleased to meet you,” he said. “Now, if you’ll just tell me where you need to go, I will be more than happy to make sure you get there.”
He heard Solomon grunt in irritation behind him but Quentin raised a hand to calm him.
“All I can tell you is that we are trying to reach the eastern edge of the Wood,” Quentin said.
Thom raised an eyebrow. “The eastern edge?”
“Yes,” Quentin replied sharply. “Why on earth would we want to go west?”
Thom spared a glance at Danielle and her grandson but neither was looking at him. They might very well want to go west but Quentin was oblivious to any insult he might have given their homeland. “I can take you east, but it’s a long journey to the edge.”
“How is that possible?” Quentin sounded like a small child protesting his mother’s command to clean up after himself. “We entered the Wood yesterday, we must be close by now.”
Thom raised an eyebrow. They’d been wandering around so long and no one else had stumbled on them? “You’ve spent at least the last few hours heading in the wrong direction,” Thom told him, as gently as he could.
Quentin’s eyes bulged and his thin face turned blood red in a display of anger that would have been comical in most other circumstances. Even in the present situation, Thom had to fight to hide his smile since the small man’s rage was directed at the hulking form of Solomon. “You said we were going east!” Quentin shrieked.
Solomon glowered at his employer and pointed up at the thick canopy. “How do you expect me to know which way we’re going when I can’t even see the sun?”
“Because I’m paying you to get us to—” Quentin broke off abruptly as he realized he’d been about to reveal their destination and, presumably, some of their purpose as well.
“It’s alright,” Thom interjected before either man could continue an argument that was clearly going nowhere. “I’ll lead you out.”
“With no more questions?” Quentin pressed.
Thom didn’t grace the inquiry with a response. Instead, he turned east. “This way.”