Eamonn drummed his fingers on the stonework. He was seated in the central courtyard by the entrance to one of the inns. It was already early afternoon.
Maddox had patted him on the back, telling the boy that he saw greatness in his future as he opened the door and let him out of his office, “Edric, send a messenger out to Aaren at his home in the Northern Forest.” he began, getting the attention of his chamberlain, “Tell him that Eamonn met with me earlier than expected and that he’ll be waiting for him in the courtyard.”
Edric nodded quickly, calling to one of the on duty guards down the hall to fetch a messenger while he composed the message for them to carry. Maddox then addressed Eamonn.
“Head down to the courtyard, it’s not yet midday so he may take a while. For now, have a meal in the inn and wait for him outside.”
That had been almost three hours ago. He’d had a long lunch at the inn, enjoying the ongoing chatter and the occasional outbursts of laughter from the other patrons, before dropping a few coins on the table and left. Things had changed so quickly, the first meeting with Maddox with Sam by his side, the assignment to Lyverild at the breeders farm in Millridge and his subsequent time spent under her wing, learning how to care and tend to the animals. All of that was now to be upturned and he wasn’t sure how he was meant to feel about it. On the one hand, he was extremely excited to have this opportunity, but on the other, he didn’t know what it would mean for Lyverild. He didn’t know how this would affect her, Maddox had tried to lessen the worry, however he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was somehow letting her down.
“Lyverild has this happen all the time to her,” Maddox began, “by now she’s used to having people join her or leave her unexpectedly. Remember what I said to you when I assigned you to her?”
Eamonn shrugged, not knowing what Maddox was referring to.
“I said to you that most of the people we have working in the stables in Millridge and here at the castle in Faraday are always moving from one province to the next and we can never hold onto a consistent number. It’s something you can’t cater for, having one more person leave her, while she might be disappointed, she’ll understand.”
Eamonn wasn’t so sure in her being so considerate, he hoped he was wrong and that Maddox was right.
Eamonn hadn’t seen the messenger leave, nor had he seen them arrive. He’d quickly descended the stairs to the inn and would have missed them as he left. It led to frustration, he was itching to get moving again, he hated to be sitting still waiting on someone else to come and collect him like he was a parcel from the parcel service. It galled him to be thought of on the same level.
He reached into his pocket to where his time pass was. As usual, he’d arrived through the main entrance and been inspected, this time he already had a time pass supplied to him in the message sent to him the previous day. He hadn’t read through it properly so, looking to pass some time, he scanned over it. He noted that there was no exclusion for him from leaving earlier than the time written down.
There was something else in his pocket, and he collected that now. Folded in half, he flattened out the other note he had, it was the same thing that Darcey had left in his pack, the thing that Sam had forgotten to tell him about.
It was a message of hope and encouragement from Darcey, telling him not to forget his true self, to trust his instincts and to take nothing for granted. He had found it two days after he had arrived in Millridge and it had given him a certain amount of confidence, he took it philosophically, Darcey had a great amount of faith in him and his abilities. This was telling him to start believing in himself.
Eamonn bit his lip, thinking things through. He could leave now and try to make his way to Aaren’s house in the Northern Forest, maybe he’ll meet Aaren on the way. The other thought he had was that he could miss him entirely or, worse than that, head in the wrong direction all together.
It was a gamble, but he decided that he could hardly wait here simply hoping that the man would happen to find him. He thought of Darcey’s letter again.
Briskly, he slapped the letter on his leg, folded it up into his pocket again and set off, slinging his pack onto his back in the process. He’d see how he’d go with finding this stranger’s home, if he wasn’t successful, he could always stop at a village nearby and ask for directions.
He passed through the main entrance again, showing the inspector his pass and was motioned through. There would be patrols out at this time of day, if he went out to the east a little and work his way back around to the north, he could avoid them, anything to forgo another inspection of his pass and the contents of his pack.
There was a small alcove of trees and shrubs off the main road that he passed. Eamonn smiled as he saw a small family of deer grazing in the protective shade of the sun. Looking out to the west, Eamonn saw a patrol moving quickly towards the road. He hurriedly left the animals to their foraging and headed further out towards the east, bypassing the guards approaching. They didn’t see him. Using the low light of the small line of trees, the guards, used to the warm sun from above and the light it provided, could only see a dark group of shapes standing still and not the moving form of Eamonn some fifty meters off to the left.
It took Eamonn the best part of an hour to reach the forest. He spent much of that time watching for any sign of discovery from the patrol guards or for any wild predators sneaking up behind him.
He was fast approaching the third sentry outpost of the afternoon. These buildings were designed as a housing station for guards. Each was manned by an effective force of roughly twenty men and they would be responsible for carrying out surveillance on the local area and were in place to provide assistance to any towns or Faraday in case of an emergency. They also offered a significant tactical advantage. They were plain and utilitarian looking, making them unobtrusive to the naked eye and easy to overlook as being simple farm houses. If there were to be any sort of uprising or attack on the castle, the outposts dotted around the province would provide a sizeable force to reinforce those in danger.
There were plenty of such outposts around the kingdom, primarily on the fringes on the major citadels of each province, but also in key choke points in some of the western provinces. In the past, Aylesbury had been at war with several countries, and they had learnt to watch their backs, when a surprise attack had come through the west. Only through the negotiations and introduction of armed forces from Kallista, a nation far to the north-west had saved them. Since those days, Eamonn knew, sentries had been keen observers, always on the lookout for trouble.
Eamonn looked to either side of the road he was following, seeing there was no way for him to avoid the third outpost, he headed directly for it, thinking any sort of deviation could only lead to trouble.
A sergeant spotted him approaching as he was making his rounds and moved out of his position by the building to conduct his usual search.
“Good afternoon,” Eamonn called, his tone neutral.
The sergeant waved him closer, gesturing to his pack. “I’ll need to have a look through that,” he told the boy.
Eamonn shrugged and handed over the pack for the guard to look through. It was largely clothing a few bits and pieces that he had been brought with him to repair in case he had some time on his hand, but largely they were nothing unexpected.
“Looks good enough,” the sergeant said, handing Eamonn back his pack, “Where are you headed?” The question took Eamonn a little by surprise, but the boy quickly recovered, “I’m heading for the Northern Forest,” he told the man. The man simply nodded. Seeing the expression, Eamonn decided to elaborate a little, “I thought I’d go and see some wildlife, one of my friends told me there was an annual ritual during spring to do with the wildlife gathering by one of the rivers there.”
The sergeant looked pleased enough, the explanation though, gave him enough time to pick up on something else Eamonn had on him, “Is that why you have that dagger placed at your back?”
Eamonn’s face went bright red. He’d forgotten he’d had it on him, “I can imagine that there would be a few predators lurking around at this time of day, mightn’t be a bad idea to have some way of defending yourself.” The sergeant admitted.
Dumbfounded, Eamonn bobbed his head in agreement.
Satisfied at last, the guard waved him through, directing him towards the Forest.
Eamonn had seen the Forest from a long way out. Strangely, there had been some afternoon cloud cover roll in, masking the tops of the trees from view. Regardless, the sight of the woods seemed to appear suddenly, forever growing larger as he approached.
He stood on the fringes of the forest, he shifted the dagger around to the side, fastening it like Maddox had shown him to his belt, ready to draw it if needed. He was glad to know that the Northern Forest wasn’t as dark and forbidding as the forest of Wildwood could be at this time of year. The shadows were just beginning to lengthen as the sun began to slide down the distant sky. In Wildwood, this was the time to start looking for home, the time when the wolves and foxes began to lurk in the darkening thickets close to the forest floor.
In the distance behind him, Eamonn could see the rising of smoke coming from the direction of Faraday castle. Tomorrow was to be the major market day and he estimated that the grounds would be bustling with people from all over, many now would be preparing themselves and their stores for the barrage of patrons expected.
He didn’t know if Darcey would be visiting Faraday for it. He figured that she would be more likely to stay at home, looking after the house.
Eamonn took a moment to catch the breath he didn’t realise he’d been holding. He looked around for a place to sit as he grabbed the apple from his pack. Biting into, the juices set his saliva flowing. The flesh was sweet and had plenty of crunch. He grinned as he thought of how similar his actions were to the horses that he had spent the last few months caring for.
He found the secluded bole of a tree to sit down at to rest briefly.
He could hear the birds in the trees, chirping away. The sun was just at the point where it’s light was streaming into the forest, lighting up the beautiful surroundings. It gave him a sense of familiarity and homeliness. The trees, he realised upon further inspection, were similar to those in his home town, only they were slightly fuller in colour and stature, no doubt he thought, because they wouldn’t be tended to by the people in the area. There was also the occasional dropping of nuts from the different trees as the birds swooped to land on their branches and pulled them off, many to come crashing to the ground, and there were the voices that seemed to carry to him from further into the forest.
“Wait,” he thought, “voices, coming from the forest…that can’t be right” he said to himself.
His mind was working overtime, his curiosity drawing him in towards the voices. He had to know what was going on further into the tangle of trees and vines. There was a trail slightly further in from where he was. He saw it as he moved to sit at the front of the tree.
He stood, slowly and quietly, forgetting his previous apprehension, and he made his way through the tangle of branches, he freed the dagger from its scabbard from its sheathe.
Watching from behind him, a silent observer saw the movement of the youngster. The shadow slowly crept along with the boy, in pursuit of him yet again, as the boy used the darkness and the shadows, placing his feet carefully to check the ground first before planting the rest of his foot down on the hard ground. He’s very good, the shadow thought.