“Who is he?” Eamonn asked.
They’d been on the road for two days since Huddensted. They had called in briefly to track down more information. As usual they approached all of the inn keepers along the road who told them the man had stayed in one of their rooms for a night only to leave quietly the following morning. Aaren handed the inn keeper a few silver coins and they set out again. It took barely an hour for Aaren to find the tracks leading them down further to the south-west.
These roads were hard and winding, some led into the mountain passes that came out level with the channels that fed into the seas and the overpass that opened out into the lands of the Kraven Grasslands and eventually Pietemara and Giffard by the Western Isles.
Eamonn had kept fairly quiet throughout their journey so far, not that he’d had the chance for idle chatter. The frequent stops to look for tracks and the many discussions with locals had kept him occupied. With the latest development though, he thought he’d try his luck at long last.
“He’s a man that’s been a thorn in my side since I was an apprentice. His name is Dallin Wilkins” Aaren replied. “He’s caused me quite a bit of grief in my time, constantly getting in our way and making life difficult” Aaren said to him, sensing the tone, Eamonn thought better than to take it any further.
Since then Eamonn had thought of little to discuss other than the occasional small talk, like where they going to make camp in the evening, or asking about what Aaren had been planning to do to once they caught up with him. Aaren had recovered quickly from his bruises and there was little more than a scab left on his lip to remind him. A trip in to see the local physician in Faraday as an extra precaution revealed no long term damage and so the pair wasted no time getting underway on their new mission.
They’d spent a few weeks already following up some leads and the rumours that had spread on their man’s whereabouts. They’d collected all additional information and reports that could indicate Dallin’s whereabouts and they’d been in constant contact with Damian who had ventured further north, while Litton Myerscough had returned to watch over Faraday in his absence, leaving Fleming Landon to keep watch on the passes into Normlieth. So far, they had found nothing but dead ends, but that meant they were learning where they hadn’t been yet.
Eamonn was getting some firsthand knowledge of what it was like to work in the commission and the responsibilities that were involved, some were enjoyable, the combat training and his time spent with his horse, Dusty, were among his favourites. Then he got to find out about the frustrations and the rigorous attention to the details that is report writing. Aaren had gone over many of the finer points of reading through them and writing them, what to focus on and what he could leave as a simple comment. It was a fine art, after all, and one that few enjoyed.
Most of their days were spent working on loose threads and visiting locations around the countryside in the early morning and afternoon, moving from place to place, then, in the evenings they’d spend most of their time writing and reading reports by the light of the fire before finally rolling up in their blankets.
Rather than heading straight for Huddensted though, Aaren decided to wait a couple of days, if they showed up too quickly afterwards, the locals would only get suspicious, instead there were reports of strange behaviour near the border with Azarowa.
When they came across an abandoned warehouse, they called for Fleming to meet with them. Nothing that confirmed or denied the presence of anyone for some time, and they crossed it off as another failure.
“Nothing but more rumours and more leads to check up on.” Fleming had said to them before he darted off as new reports came in of smugglers causing some trouble on the roads south.
Along the road, Aaren had spent some time querying the boy about the men who showed up at their house unannounced a few days ago. He could see that the boy, while unsettled by the memory of armed men showing up at their front doorstep, had remembered some of his training, and was pleased to hear that he thought of mentor first. Unfortunately, Eamonn was a little hazy on the identity of the man, saying that he never really got a good enough glimpse to be able to make any sort of accurate description and that the situation was fairly confronting for him.
“All I know is that he was tall, about my height, he had an air of authority about him, he had green eyes and short blond hair. The men with him seemed to resent him a little, one or two of them rolled their eyes when he ordered them to form up as they left.” These were details he hadn’t yet told Aaren.
“What about his voice?” Aaren asked, then went on to provide his own answer, “Slightly thicker than you expected it to be, like it wasn’t of Aylesburian origin?”
Eamonn looked up, surprised, he had thought much the same thing, “Yes. In fact, I thought it reminded me of an Azarowan accent. Only it was more difficult to pick up on what he was saying, he was well built and closer to your age I’d say” he told him. Aaren was filing the information away, trying to figure out who the mystery man could be, he didn’t like riddles as they always gave him the feeling of someone watching over his shoulder, no matter how many times he turned to look over his shoulder though, that sensation was always there, forever present, forever watching.
“What about his weapons?”
Eamonn thought for a moment, “He had a longbow, it looked well-made and there was a short sword on his belt.”
Aaren nodded to himself, “I’d say it was Litton. He was raised in Azarowa when he was young, although I haven’t seen him for a while, the last time I heard he had started using a longbow.”
Aaren’s tone didn’t convince Eamonn, he mightn’t know who it was that had come to the house that day, if it were another member of the Commission, he didn’t think they would come with other people, nor would they be resented by them.
They were a little further down the road when they stopped momentarily for a supply carriage to go by, Aaren nodded briefly to the men accompanying it, these he could tell, were honest men. Eamonn was watching them as well, seeing the insignia on their jerkins he identified them as men from Faraday.
“I thought this would be too far out for men of Faraday to journey” he said, drawing Aaren’s attention to the uniforms, he was careful to keep his voice down, not wanting to gain their attention. Eamonn knew it was possible that they might be out this far, though he knew that only Maddox had the authority to schedule something like this, and as they had found out when they had gone to discuss their mission with him, they learnt the baron had left the castle grounds to schedule preparations for his own assignment.
Aaren looked sidelong at the young man, “We’re here aren’t we?” Aaren said simply. “Though the commander might be away from his desk, the general runnings of the keep go on,” Aaren explained “my guess is that it was Liam.”
Liam was Maddox’s son, and the man they had met with in his father’s absence. “As you were told the other day, with Maddox away, most of his duties have been passed onto Liam. It’s been happening for a few years now, some think that he’s a little young for the position, not to mention he can be a little prickly to deal with sometimes, but at heart he’s a likeable enough person, he just likes to run things his own way and sometimes that goes against what his father does. My past dealings with him have made me aware of that. What I know is that he’s good at his job.” He told Eamonn.
“Where has Maddox gone?” he asked.
From what Eamonn had read, there could be conflict stirring if someone in an important position were to leave their office for any reason, particularly if it meant their son took up their position. It had been noted that in some nations that lacked a definitive ruling figure that the positions of power were unstable, and that came with an inherent power struggle as each member had their own group of followers loyal to them and their own agenda to push for in their desire for ruling.
Caledonia was one that repeatedly came up in his books. The tyrant nation was rife with rebel war leaders with too much of an ego and power for their own good and as a result, there hadn’t been any form of stability or structure to the governing body for some years.
Aaren grunted as he eased himself down from Storm’s saddle.
“Something must have come up. It’s not too much of a rarity for someone with some form of nobility to be sent on an errand. Last I heard, he was working with Dunstan to prepare for some meetings in Dorset, it’s only a day’s ride east of Faraday near the border posts with Azarowa, so long as he returns in good health in the foreseeable future, everything should remain in good order.” Aaren explained, hoping to put the young man’s mind at ease.
Dunstan, Eamonn knew, was a popular figure at the academy in Faraday; he remembered Sam had mentioned him in one of his letters.
“Well here looks like as good a spot as any to camp” Aaren announced. He’d bent down to inspect the trail, satisfied that it wasn’t well travelled and would be out of the eye-line of passersby he signaled to Eamonn to follow him down.
Aaren returned, taking the lead ropes of his horse and moved off the path they’d been travelling on behind a small thatch of trees that would provide them a good amount of cover for the time being. It was one of their scheduled stops. Every four hours, they would stop for one hour, where they would have the opportunity to make camp, have something to eat or drink, hot if they had the chance, cold if not, and to sleep for a while.
Eamonn, caught off guard, was a little slow to react, almost hooking his foot in one of the stirrups of his saddle as he dismounted.
Aaren was already tending to Storm, using him to trample down some of the grass to make their camp more comfortable. The horses were promptly rubbed down and thoroughly checked for any signs of injury or strain. A Commissioner’s main mode of transport was their horse and they could ill afford for it to be injured or go lame. Aaren stroked Storm’s long nose and slipped her an apple to eat before they settled down to rest like their masters. Aaren was hesitant to unsaddle the horses, he didn’t frequent these parts of his domain, and that placed him in unfamiliar territory. He didn’t know who or might be around and so he preferred to keep themselves prepared for emergencies. He couldn’t chance that there weren’t any bandits nearby that might mean them any harm. The best they could do for the horses was to loosen their girth straps to make them more comfortable, it would be the simple matter of tightening them if they needed to leave suddenly.
When the boy was finished, Aaren beckoned Eamonn over. “We’re running a little low on supplies, take my hatchet and cut some wood from some of the smaller trees, we’ll take some with us in case we don’t have a ready supply next time. I’ll work on getting the fire going with the last of what he have. The hatchet is in one of the pockets tied to the saddle on your side” he said pointing to the pack. Eamonn looked around, so far in his training he’d been taught to be cautious in areas like these, “Are you sure we can risk it?” he asked.
Aaren thought for a moment and shrugged, “I think that if we shield the light behind the larger trees here we’ll be alright, don’t forget to remove any bark from the wood.”
Bark was known to give off a lot of smoke as the oils from the wood usually leached out as the material dried. Once the waxy substances were gone though, it would burn with little smoke, by that stage though, you were often found anyway. Aaren had experimented in the past with stripping the outer layers of branches and bark and using the most efficient part for burning, and the bark made for good kindling too. The wood they would use wouldn’t last as long, nor would it burn as fiercely, for their needs though it would provide an ample amount of warmth until they moved on.
Eamonn removed the protective covering from the ax, and walked to one of the nearby trees. Within a few minutes, he had started to create a small row of neatly cut pieces of wood beside him. “Where do you think he’s hiding?” Eamonn asked between blows.
Each night they’d discussed the matter, taking into account any traces they’d come across, although despite Aaren’s skills in tracking, there had been precious little of that. The previous day had been spent searching through one of the forested areas, which had given Aaren time to point out various types of animal tracks Eamonn would see in the forest. He’d identified several rabbits, foxes and a family of stoats, showing his student how they moved across the forest floor, what they tended to avoid and the subtle differences in the prints the foxes left when simply moving about and when hunting. Eamonn led the way in the late afternoon, coming across an indentation he described as being ‘small’, much to his disappointment he learnt that this was one of the easier trails to follow. There were in fact human.
Aaren rolled out his bedroll to sit down on, stretching out his muscles and sighing appreciatively as he felt them loosen. Thinking back on those prints, he voiced his opinions as Eamonn stopped to collect the remaining pilings to fill the saddle bags. “There are several mines and tunnels around here. Any number of people could have left those tracks behind. There were several sets of footprints, they could mean he’s either travelling with a group or he’s not a part of that group at all.” Aaren replied, “My guess is that he’d be on his own and he would have kept moving.”
Aaren looked sidelong at Eamonn, grinning easily. “Miners don’t like outsiders, to them they’re a threat. Not a physical one of course, although in this case they would be a physical threat. Anyway, they don’t like someone being around that could take their share of the earnings. If he was around, the miners would’ve seen to it that he didn’t stay long.” he acknowledged.
Noticing Eamonn ready to pose a question, he quickly pressed on “From the tracks we’ve seen, they look to be a couple of days old, I’d say we’re still at least half a day behind them and, as you’ve noticed, the trail is getting easier to follow” he said. They were moving out from the hill ranges where Huddensted had been located, gradually reaching sea level again. These paths were largely untraveled, which meant that their target was trying to avoid the highways. If they could see that the trail was getting easier to follow, it meant that the man was beginning to forsake concealing his tracks in the hope that his speed would make up for it.
Eamonn tied the last of the saddle bags closed and made to add some to the fire. Aaren had done his job in setting it up, today it was Eamonn’s turn to keep watch over it. Aaren carefully measured out some coffee grounds into a pot, pouring some water from their spare water skin in and set it down to boil.
“Going back to what you said earlier.” Eamonn began, “you said that the path is becoming easier to follow?” Aaren nodded emphatically, “Yes. If you took a closer look at the tracks we’ve been following, it’s slightly damp underfoot, he could have stuck to the trees, making it more difficult for us to follow him, instead he’s heading straight down the path, leaving a distinct trail for us to follow. By this time, I’d say he’d feel almost certain that he doesn’t need to conceal his movements anymore, so he’s stopped worrying about it” Aaren said. Working it through his mind, Eamonn could see that perhaps it wasn’t that the man had forsaken stealth for speed; there could always be the other alternative. “Is it possible that he laid the trail on purpose?” he queried.
Aaren had known about this man for almost fifteen years, since the second year of his own studies, that was fifteen years of people chasing your tracks and staying out of reach. He figured it was possible the man had learnt some tricks in that time. “It’s possible” he answered, “but why would he continue coming to the south east? There is no place of significance he could go.” He told him.
“What about back towards Faraday? He could have turned back to come up behind us, or wanted to get someone important in the kingdom?”
Eamonn wasn’t sure if the bandit knew whether Aaren was after him, they had been out here looking for him for some weeks, while he didn’t think that many people on the run would have the audacity to double back on his pursuers and therefore put themselves at risk of being caught more easily, it was possible, he would have to know that people would come after him. A remote location was almost as easy to find someone in as a populated area. He didn’t think Dallin would be so foolish
Thinking quickly, Aaren was expressing the options the man had. “There are only three places he could go.” he began, “One is to continue going east and try for Maarten in Azarowa, though anyone with a brain will steer clear of there because they’ll have to go through an army to get to him. The treaty negotiations are currently being held there, if he’s as devious as I know he is, Dallin will stay away from there.”
“Two, he’s doubled back to get us from behind, however we would’ve seen some sort of tracks unless of course we’re still a day or so behind and I’ve forgotten how to track. Finally, he could continue down to one of the fishing ports. There are several dotted around as many follow the Trapt River that cuts into the lands of Aylesbury and Azarowa, it’s how we get a lot of our supplies from the south towards Dareton and Freyhedge. There is only one port that he’d have any reason to go to and that’s Blackden.” He concluded, standing and moving away from the fire, holding one of their reports in his hands, thinking through the situation again.
Steam was starting to rise out of the pot from where it lay in the flames. Eamonn poured some of the rich coffee into two mugs and gave one to his teacher. They each drank some of the coffee, trying to determine what the man could be after. For the first time, Eamonn could see the signs of worry in Aaren’s body language, the tapping of his fingers seemed to cinch it.
“What’s at Blackden that would interest him?” Eamonn asked mildly. He took a deep draft of coffee and settled back into his spot. Aaren regarded the boy suspiciously for a moment then answered the question in a similar tone.
“Well there’s a large lake there, which is about sixty kilometers wide that leads off to multiple remote islands, he could easily get himself to Caledonia in a few days.” he reasoned, his eyebrows raised before continuing on, “There is of course the local fishing business and what’s left of several smuggling businesses that would be more than happy to accommodate him.” He said taking another draught of coffee.
“So you think that he could be heading for one of the smugglers to help protect him or perhaps escort him across to Caledonia, where he’d be in relative safety?” Eamonn questioned, Aaren was already shaking his head.
“No. Definitely not, a man like this would have several people baying for his blood, in the past many would have gravitated to him. I know though that he’s betrayed too many for them for anyone to ever trust him again. Going to Caledonia would only result in his death, too many would hold grudges against him. It wouldn’t make sense for him to suddenly ask one for a favour, they’d as soon cut his ears off than willingly give aid to him.”
“Well then, who would he be looking for?” Eamonn prompted.
“He’ll be looking for someone in particular…” Aaren replied. Then it dawned on him. “He’ll be after my teacher. Blane has been stationed there for the past five years.”