Despite the boys remaining obviously skittish of our mounts throughout the journey, we made good time, and managed to reach the forest just before nightfall on the second day, after dropping off our horses at the small guard outpost that watched the nearby road.
Harold and Jack found a collection of boulders near the treeline and immediately set about gathering firewood.
“What are you doing?” I demanded. “We’ve perhaps an hour of light left, and torches for the dark. We should press on.”
“We’re not traveling through the forest at night,” Harold informed me bluntly. “We can set out in the morning, and we’ll be able to find a good campsite during the day.” Jack didn’t even acknowledge my presence, just continued diligently securing the campsite with the practiced ease of a scout or woodsman.
I sighed. I was doing a lot of that around these two. “I don’t know what superstitions—”
“Actually, they’re right,” Roark insisted. I turned to see him removing a few small pots and pans, presumably in preparation for stew. “Forests are dangerous after dark. Wolves hunt at night, and it’s not cold enough for bears to hibernate—meaning they will still be wandering around.” He shrugged. “Plus, you could trip over a root and break your neck. Trust me sir, you don’t want to be stumbling around a forest at night.”
Well, when he put it like that, what choice did I have? I was born and raised in London; I only left for war, training, and other army exercises. This was all new to me, and I needed to remember that delusional or not, Harold and Jack had succeeded in crossing a dangerous forest by themselves.
“All right, all right,” I grumbled. “I know when I’m beaten. Who wants first watch?”
In the morning, I woke refreshed (if a bit cold) to find Harold gently stirring the embers of the fire with a sturdy stick he had found somewhere. Due to habit drilled into me from years as a soldier, I counted the bodies around the camp before I was even fully awake.
As I began to shake sleep from my mind, I frowned, counted again, and noted which of our companions was missing. “Where is Jack?”
Harold jerked his thumb behind him, indicating a corner of the camp some ten feet away from the rest of us, in the crack between two large boulders. The swordsman was sleeping there, nestled like a baby in its cradle…except for the swords sitting unsheathed on his chest.
For the first time, I was able to get a good look at the blades themselves. They were in better condition than I expected, polished to a mirror sheen, but still had a savage quality to them. They curved in odd ways, and had non-uniform teeth or spikes along the cutting edge of the blade.
As though he could sense my gaze, the young man’s eyes slowly drifted open. For a moment, they were soft and innocent, reminding me of my own youngest child.
Then the sharp strength returned, immediately transforming them into the eyes of someone who has seen far too much death at a young age.
What was happening in their village?