Eamonn could feel the repetitive stabbing of sharp pain in his chest and at the back of his head as he sped along the harsh forest floor, the sun’s rays warm on his neck. He was slumped, unceremoniously, across the front of the horse’s saddle, tied into place to ensure he wouldn’t fall.
He tried to look at his captor, but the sudden intensity of the light streaking through the trees defeated him.
He was forced to be content with simply lying where he was, with nothing that he could do in the situation.
The horse maintained a steady canter, maneuvering its way through the trees, all the time keeping itself to the same rhythmic motions.
The man was maintaining a strong grip on the reins, the boy saw as he was stirring. Now he realised, the pain in his chest was from the saddle pommel that he was lying upon. The man seemed to notice his slight movements as he finally regained full consciousness, slowing the horse’s pace to a slow canter.
“Don’t say a word and don’t try to escape, it’ll only make things more difficult for you,” the man said.
They went for a short while more, Eamonn not knowing where they were going. The trees of the forest were all he could see for some time.
Eventually, the horse slowed its speed and came to a stop. There was a momentary pause before Eamonn felt the saddle shift slightly as the man dismounted. Eamonn tried working his muscles free and surprisingly felt little resistance as he felt himself being lifted free of the saddle and steadily lowered to the ground. It wasn’t the dropping and crashing to the ground that he had expected.
Bound still by the hands and ankles, Eamonn heard the dull shringing sound as the man withdrew a small knife from his belt. Instinctively, Eamonn started backing away, but the blinding light of the sun forced his eyes closed and he couldn’t see that he was in fact retreating in circles. The strange figure watched him for a moment, a crooked grin set on his features as he watched the boy fall hard onto his back. He stepped forward, grabbing of the boy’s flailing wrists and sliced through the bonds. Instantly, Eamonn felt the pressure of the bonds release, freeing his tendons to work out the kinks.
Gradually Eamonn came to his senses and managed to get himself up into an awkward seating position. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he looked up to meet the harsh gaze in his captor’s eyes, carefully watching the man as he wound the cordage that had bound Eamonn up into a single line, ready for its next use. Surprisingly, the other man dropped his eyes first, turning back to fix up his horse.
Eamonn looked curiously at the man. He was not one of the bandits. That was obvious enough, the crossbow that he carried was evidence enough, and he had an air of assurance about him and was clean shaven, unlike the other bandits, not to mention the longsword at his belt.
With the man’s back turned, Eamonn slowly moved his hand to where his dagger was. He had the horrible feeling as he realised that the dagger was no longer on his belt.
“You’re correct if you think that I’m not one of the bandits” the man’s voice carried to him, despite him barely talking about a whisper, his statement echoing Eamonn’s previous thoughts. Even standing where he was, as the shadows enveloped them on the edge of a scattering of trees, Eamonn noticed the man seemed to shift in and out of focus before his very eyes. He could see the uncertain light was doing its job to help conceal most of the man’s features.
“I have a number of things that I wish to ask you,” the man said, “First of all…What are you doing out here? This is a long way to come to try and stop a band of thieves. Which brings me to my second question,” he said without pausing, “How did you come across this dagger?” The man threw the weapon out in front of him, where it landed a meter or so short of Eamonn.
The flurry of questions left Eamonn dumbfounded. He didn’t know what to say.
“You followed me?” he asked eventually, confusion written on his face. Why would anyone follow him, he wondered.
“I don’t think you’re in a position to be asking the questions here. Now, where did you get that dagger?”
The man strode out of the shadowy depths of the trees and revealed himself to the youngster. He was reasonably tall, a little more so than Eamonn, and was well built, in the shoulders especially. The man stood waiting for an answer, opened his arms a little as if to convey his growing frustration.
Seeing the action, Eamonn hesitated a moment, changed his wording and looked at the man defiantly “I got it the other day, it was a gift.”
The stranger was nodding, “Yes, I imagine so. And your plans were to do what? Take the dagger to the man’s throat and hope the woman didn’t scream out and alert the other thieves?” The man’s words were harsh and direct and the implications were clear. The man knew full well what the boy had planned, at his age he probably would have done a similar thing. Eamonn could only shrug.
“I was hoping to –” Eamonn didn’t get the chance to complete his sentence, the man seizing on the opportunity granted to him.
“’Hoping to? The only way you could have helped them was if you had slit his throat and taken control of the horses. But then you would have been leaving the man behind, with no way of escaping.”
“But, I could have saved them” Eamonn rebuked.
Slowly, almost sadly, the man shook his head, “There was no way to help them, at least, not anyone without any sort of training.”
Eamonn looked down miserably, feeling more helpless as each moment passed. The man smiled sympathetically at the boy, “Don’t worry, it’s what I doubt I could have done any better when I was your age” the man admitted in an upbeat tone.
Eamonn looked up at the man. He was mysterious, his mood forever changing, though Eamonn couldn’t see any signs that could lead to any sort of cruelty from him. The man could be preparing himself to turn and start a campfire and brew a pot of coffee for a bunch of fabled dragons for all Eamonn knew, or he could simply turn and walk away, leaving Eamonn on his own.
“Right,” The man was rubbing his hands together, any signs of animosity were all but gone now from his body language. “We’ve been standing here doing nothing for long enough, I think it was about time that we got up and about.”
“What do you mean “up and about”? What about the bandits?” He demanded.
The thought that this mysterious man would let bandits escape was beyond him. The man gestured to the trail in front of him, “’Going’ as in ‘to leave’ or ‘move on’ or ‘no longer being here’.” His tone laced in sarcasm.
“We need to get you going if we’re to ever get anything done, I assume you want to find out what you’re doing here” He said, gesturing to their surroundings.
For the first time, Eamonn had a good look around, this place certainly looked more pleasant and impervious to where he had been earlier. Then he realised, there was truly no way of him knowing how long he had been unconscious.
The sun was hidden from his view, but the lengthening shadows around him indicated that it was late afternoon.
“As for the bandits,” The man began, looking to answer Eamonn’s earlier question, “I was hoping they wouldn’t be a problem, but seeing as how determined they were to steal from that wealthy couple in the carriage, not to mention how much you wanted to stop them, I figured I’d take a hand. I left them in the care of the man with a message for the baron and the promise of a lengthy term in the prison cells.”
With that the man pulled his hood over his head and moved closer to the boy, holding out his hand to help pull him up.
Gingerly, Eamonn took it, coming to his feet, momentarily feeling the world spin around him, cramps knotting his legs. Grimacing at the pain, he staggered momentarily on his feet, only the support from the cloaked man kept him upright. Eamonn absentmindedly looked around again, rubbing his head as he felt the pain from the blow hit him again.
“Sorry about that” the man said, seeing the boy’s action, “I needed a way of getting you out of danger, if I were to make a point of approaching you, you would have made some sort of noise and that would have alerted the bandits. Give me a little while here and I’ll be able to give you something for the pain” He told the boy.
It took little time for a camp fire to be put together, along with a brewed pot of coffee and a rather odd smelling concoction that the man had put together for Eamonn. Eamonn was handed a cup of the concoction, while the cloaked man had a mug of fresh coffee. Eamonn sipped the drink, shuddering and quivering at the foul taste of the mix, “it’s good” he said to the man, his voice slightly hoarse.
The man smirked at the boy, “No it isn’t.” he responded, “Nobody likes that medicine” he reasoned, “finish it up though, it’ll help with the pain”. Obediently, Eamonn took another sip, recoiling and spluttering quietly as he found the taste amplifying.
“So, where are we going?” asked the boy, trying to change the subject. The man was facing Eamonn about fifteen meters away from him, he was busy stoking the fire again, using one of the smaller logs as he shifted the larger ones into position. Happy with his ministrations, he tossed the smaller log he’d been holding into the middle of the flames and turned to Eamonn.
“I was beginning to wonder when you were going to ask that.” The man said. Eamonn just looked at the man blankly; a nearby tree had recently fallen, it was on such an angle that it was perfect to sit on. The man signaled for the boy to sit as he moved around. He’d need a while to explain to the boy what was going on, and how much of a change this meant for the boy’s life.
The man retrieved his water skin from a pack tied to his horse’s saddle, offering it to Eamonn to help rid his mouth of the foul tasting medicine and scooted up next to the fallen tree. “I’ll suppose you’re wondering why I’m here, and what that has to do with you, among other things of course,” he began, looking for any recognition in the boy, before he continued.
“Well I guess I’d better just tell you…”He said finally, “First of all, my name is Aaren Fairweather. My assignment is to teach to you about my jobs throughout the kingdoms so that, in time, you can take some of the load off my shoulders. But in order for that to happen I have to train you” Aaren said.
Eamonn, with his attention captured, couldn’t keep quiet anymore, “Train me, as what? And I’m already apprenticed to the Lady Lyverild at the stables. I would have thought that if you were so good at predicting my thoughts earlier, that you would have seen a way around that ‘slight’ inconvenience?” Eamonn questioned rather arrogantly, but there was something he had missed about this man.
Aaren, a stranger to the boy up until a few minutes ago, just laughed at Eamonn. “You really think that we didn’t prepare for that? Really? Well perhaps it was because we’d seen you prove yourself in every facet of the job to date, though it is true that we wanted you to learn how to look after the horses…”
“We? Who else was in on this?” the youth asked, cutting Aaren off as he did. It was then that Eamonn put two and two together, “you’re the man Maddox wanted me to meet.”
Aaren nodded slowly. Eamonn shifted awkwardly on his spot, ashamed of the way he acted. He found he couldn’t look up at Aaren now. Accepting it as an apology, Aaren brought the boy up to date with things. “You’re right, I’ve been instructed by my superiors and by baron Maddox to take you as my pupil so to teach you about how to be part of the Ayleserowan Royal Commission, we were hoping to do it a little sooner, but that Lieutenant showed up unexpectedly and threw everything out of order.” Aaren said.
A frown creased Eamonn’s face, “The Ayleserowan Royal Commission? What is that?” he asked.
Aaren sighed again. There was little to know about the task force for someone as young as Eamonn, and Aaren knew that an apprentice, even an unofficial one like Eamonn, was required to know exactly what their job entailed, but everything had a right time and place for it.
“I’ll tell you later, we can’t linger around here for long, we haven’t got the time.” He explained. It had been some time since Eamonn had first arrived at the forest, he wanted to know more about this turn of events, then the pain was back, and now he was glad that Aaren decided against overwhelming him with information.
Just the idea that this was all a planned thing made his head spin, in times such as these he preferred things to be straightforward and whatever was said was final, thinking could often make things difficult he thought as he rubbed the painful spot behind his ear.
They walked for a few minutes, Aaren leading the way ahead of the boy with the horse alongside him. Another thing Eamonn was grateful for was the leveling out of the path. He remembered that the forest paths had been rather unstable underfoot. With the icy foothills of Wildwood long thawed, it was surprising to note that the ground had yet settled into place again, despite it being mid-spring.
Aaren noticed the boy beginning to lag behind and slowed his pace slightly, allowing the boy to keep up, while he had been moving at a fast walk, it was a little awkward for Eamonn as he couldn’t match the same gait of the older man.
They came to a clearing, the evening sun penetrating through the trees into the area, illuminating the scene. Aaren look up at the horizon, figured they still had some time before the sun eased behind the land and made a move towards the horse, producing three apples, he fed one to the horse, sharing a quiet joke with the animal and patting its muzzle. “I think it’s time now that I told about this task force of ours.” Again Aaren was on the move, he produced a small blanket spread out on the ground to sit on. With a sigh, he sat down, did a couple of exercises to help stretch his leg muscles a bit and gestured for the boy to join him.
“More or less, we’re the eyes and ears of the two kingdoms. We are members of a royal guard that protects the borders of this country, Aylesbury, and the country of Azarowa to the south-east. The Azarowan King’s palace is actually about two days ride that way.” he told the boy, pointing to the east.
“We make sure that the two kingdoms and, more importantly, their kings are protected and safe, and we eliminate all threats to them and the kingdom, although for the past twelve or so years, King Maarten of Azarowa has taken very little notice of us, he prefers his sector to remain on the outskirts of his country. In recent times, we’ve been getting most of our assignments from Jarvis.” He told the boy. Not for the first time, Aaren felt somewhat redundant in his position, wishing that Maarten would use his men the way they were recruited for. When it came to his job, the Royal Commission was there for the main purpose of keeping both countries safe, and most members felt skeptical of how they were being dealt with by Maarten. “We also take on many roles in battle much like a general, but we can also act as scouts so we’re often very much more hands on with the job” he admitted, after getting back on topic.
Eamonn thought over what Aaren was saying carefully, he had a decent idea of each military division was and what each did. It was something that he and Sam had studied, but this Commission business was different. “I thought the scouts were in charge of protecting the King?”
Aaren thought on his response, he needed to make sure the boy knew what was being said, “Scouts are keepers and enforcers of the law and they are much more about tactics. Which you’ll see when you study with them in your third year, however we train in a much more deliberate way, we’ve come to be known as generals in the battles. We take on large tasks in battle, usually taking things head on.”
Eamonn, nodded at what Aaren was saying. Looking the boy up and down, Aaren nodded his head, “There’s an island about a hundred kilometers from the west coast of the Aylesbury called Giffard. We gave them a bit of a hard time when a rebel uprising some decades ago went sour for them.”
“We spent almost a decade thwarting the schemes of the rebellion. In the end, it was the tactics devised by the scouts that we in the Commission managed to put into effect that saved the ruling council and its men, we realised that the key to the rebellion lay in their ability to hit us quickly without us knowing until it was too late, so we set a trap where we could follow them, they took us right to their base, and we decided to do the same that they had. Once their leader was out of the way, the rest of them folded easily.” He looked to the sky, judging they’d had their short break, he broke one stem off an indiscriminate blade of long grass, “It’s about time we got going again” he said, using a nearby tree to support himself as he stood.
The pair walked for a while longer, Aaren continued to describe the battle that took place at Giffard according to the record accounts of it, telling the boy of how excited he was hearing about it all when he was young. He watched as time and time again a smile touched Eamonn’s lips. He thought of himself those years ago, seeing himself in Eamonn’s shoes as he mind went back to those times years ago, when there was nothing more exciting than the prospect of battle.
Eamonn’s thoughts constantly drifted between reality and imagination throughout the evening as the moonlight was setting in, looking to take the last vestige of warmth from the day. From a distance, Eamonn could see what looked to be a small lodge, similar to the one he’d lived in back in Wildwood, it had the same cozy and comfortable look about it that reminded him so much of home.
“Well…we’re here” Aaren announced, he was proud of his lodge, he had built it with his own two hands across a long summer season, spending each day working himself to the bone trying to get it finished. He looked over at Eamonn, neither had said much since the lodge had come into view and Aaren noticed Eamonn’s expression for the first time, he could tell the young man was locked into a deep train of thought.
“Don’t look too despondent Eamonn, it doesn’t look like much, but its home” he jibed. Eamonn had to agree, in his mind it was the perfect looking home, just about the right size for their means. “It sure looks cozy” he complimented.
“Thank you” he said, acknowledging the praise from the youngster. “I’ll get a fire going and you can help me prepare some food, we can sit by the fire as I tell you a bit about it…but not before I give you a tour of the place.” He added with a smile.