The first thing I noticed when I met everyone at the stables an hour later was that the villagers were now armed. It only made sense that they had been forced to divest their weapons before meeting the king; to do otherwise would be treason.
The disturbing part was that they were better armed than my men.
The black-haired boy had a large, gore-stained wood chopping hatchet slung across his back, with about half a dozen massive knives sheathed across his belt. He also had a large number of leather pouches, several on his belt and more strapped diagonally across his chest, obviously holding herbs or poisons of some kind, if I were to hazard a guess. Even as I watched, he slung a quiver of arrows, fletched with black feathers, over his shoulder, and picked up a large unstrung bow almost as tall as he was, made from some strange type of white wood that almost looked like bone.
The other one, the blond, was clearly not an archer. He wasn’t as heavily armored as myself and my knights, but he wore a stiff leather jerkin, strategically reinforced with bone underneath for added protection, as well as a pair of large bracers made of a strange greyish-black metal that I couldn’t identify.
Slung across his back in thick leather sheathes were a pair of crudely-forged longswords. I couldn’t determine much detail, due to the obvious fact that they were still sheathed, but judging by the hilts, they were little more than sharp metal sticks, with a bone cross-brace affixed by wire separating the blade from the leather-wrapped handle.
I didn’t say anything to the pair; delusional or tricked, it didn’t matter, they were clearly dangerous. The faster we were done with this business, the better.
I turned to my men, three veterans only slightly younger than myself, wearing chain hauberks over stiff leather armor. “Good. I was afraid you idiots would decide to wear your full plate after all.”
Roark, my second, chuckled. “Without squires to help carry the load? I wouldn’t do that to my horse.”
The good humor faded quickly, however, as Vale leaned in close. “Sir, I heard the castle servants talking. Something about a…monster hunt? Tell me that’s not seriously what we’re doing here.”
I sighed, rubbing my forehead. “It…is, in a manner of speaking. The cleric of Grandsbriar sent these two here with tales of monsters and…” I waved my hand. “Demons, and all manner of strange beasts. He claims the village is under siege.”
“That might be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Norn muttered.
“Yes, well, apparently he is aware of that, since he didn’t request an army. He requested a knight.” I indicated myself. “A loyal and trustworthy knight, who can investigate the matter and report back to the king.”
“And what does His Majesty think we’re going to find?” Norn asked, still clearly skeptical.
“He suspects bandits,” I said bluntly. “There have been more attacks recently. Perhaps these ones have decided to prey on superstitious villagers, finding that easier than more honest work.”
Vale eyed the two young villagers. “And what about you? You don’t seem to mind that your king, and his appointed knight, clearly don’t believe your fanciful tales.”
The swordsman met his gaze evenly.
“They will learn the truth soon enough,” he replied in a soft and calm voice. His tone betrayed no doubt or hesitation; whether it was true or not, he clearly believed the monsters were real.
“Yes, well,” I murmured. “Let’s get on then, shall we?” I tossed my last saddle bag onto my horse. “Roark, you lead us away from the city. Vale and Norn, keep the rearguard. I’ll be in the middle with the…” I trailed off, frowning. “You two. Where are your horses?”
“They went dire,” the archer explained, as though that meant something. “We walked here.”
Roark was flabbergasted. “You walked from Grandsbriar to London?”
“It’s not that far,” the young man countered. “The main road winds quite a bit, so going on foot, in a straight line, is not too much slower. We should be there in a week and a half.”
“The king wants a report in three weeks,” I reminded him. “A week and a half’s travel time won’t give us enough time to investigate. You will ride with us. One of you with me, and the other with Norn.” We had the stronger horses.
“No,” the swordsman responded, his soft voice flat and emotionless. “Your horses will go dire once we get too far from the city. We go on foot.”
I frowned. I wasn’t about to be ordered around by two crazy whelps who had seen a little too much death. “That’s preposterous! We’re not going to trek through a dangerous forest just because…you’re afraid of our horses!”
“We’re going through the forest, on foot,” the archer reiterated. “This is not negotiable. We’ll have nothing to do with your horses, and if you don’t have a horse, the forest is the fastest way.”
I was ready to argue a bit more, but Vale put his hand on my shoulder, silencing me. Once he was sure I was going to give him a chance to speak, he turned to the archer. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Harold,” he said, eyes strong and unwavering. He jerked his thumb to indicate his companion. “That’s Jack.”
“Harold,” Vale repeated, nodding. “Why don’t you explain to us exactly why you won’t use our horses. What exactly is this…” He gestured vaguely. “Going dire that you keep mentioning. We won’t ever come to an agreement if we don’t talk.”
The boys looked at each other for a moment. The blond swordsman, Jack, just rolled his eyes and shrugged. Harold sighed in defeat.
“The further we get from civilization, the higher the chance the horses go dire,” he clarified. “Which is to say, the higher the chance they get possessed by something we call a dire spirit, turned into monsters, and try to kill us.”
The silence that fell was so thick that you could cut it with a knife.
“…young man,” I began slowly. “I don’t know what you think you’ve seen—”
“You insisted we explain,” Harold pointed out quickly. “So I don’t think anyone is in the mood for a lecture.”
I ground my teeth. We hadn’t even set out, and I was already having trouble not strangling this brat. “Listen, you—”
“Sir, please let me,” Vale said quietly from my side. The handsome blond knight turned his glowing smile back to the archer. “You said the farther we get from civilization. How far, exactly?”
Harold shrugged. “Hard to say. A couple miles, at least, but that’s rare. And Father Mallern thinks that the more humans there are, the wider the safe area—so London is going to have a much bigger safe area than our little village.”
“What about the edge of the forest?” Vale pressed. “Would that be too far?”
The archer frowned. “The close side of the forest?” Vale nodded, and Harold turned to Jack, who just shrugged again. Harold nodded at Vale. “That might be safe. Depends on what exactly you’ve in mind.”
“Simple: We leave our horses at the edge of the forest. Or at the outpost at the edge of the forest, anyway. It’s only two days away if we ride hard, and it will cut five days off the journey, if we go the rest of the way on foot through the forest, as you’ve suggested.” Vale spread his hands wide, grinning broadly. “Compromise.”
“…that sounds like it will work,” Harold admitted slowly. I heard a sound behind me, and was surprised to see that Jack was already climbing on to my horse, carefully sitting on the front of the saddle, to give me enough room. Clearly, he had more than a little riding experience.
“But I warn you,” the archer continued, his voice hard. “If the horses go dire, we’re running. We’re not going to try and save you.”
“Never expected you too,” I grunted.