The Lost Forest
The little grey-robed wizard skittered across the polished floorboards on his knees, propelled by the boot of a heavy guardsman. He came to a halt, discomforted and irascible, at the feet of a strongly built man in his mid-twenties dressed in finely embroidered dark red robes, seated on a carved wooden chair with the arms of the Tamadil line emblazoned on its back rest.
Prince Jarand raised an eyebrow as he stared down at the dishevelled wizard, “I believe you have something of interest to report?”
“Yes, Your Highness, although I would have been quite capable of presenting myself to you without the assistance of that oaf.” Without presuming to raise his head, the wizard sent a poisonous look over his shoulder at the guard, who was now standing imperviously at the door.
“Perhaps it was your reticence in coming forward with this information that misled him into thinking you unwilling.” The Prince was gently tapping his finger on the arm of the chair, making the wizard nervous.
The wizard shifted his position slightly on the floor to ease his sore knees. “Your Highness, I did not realise that my observations would be of interest to you…and to tell you the truth, even if I had, I would not have known how to gain access to you. It is a great honour for me to meet you and I am more than willing to speak with you.”
Jarand waved a lazy hand at the guard, “You may leave us, Gorval.” When the guard hesitated, the prince’s voice sharpened, “I am sure this wizard you have brought me is aware that his life is forfeit, should he make any move on my person. Now leave us.”
The guard bowed and withdrew, closing the great carved doors behind him. The dull thud reverberated into silence as the prince was left alone in the huge reception hall with the wizard at his feet. After a few moments, Jarand said quietly, “You may rise.” When the wizard was standing before him, he waved at a nearby chair, “Please be seated. I can see the hard floor is causing your knees some discomfort.”
The wizard picked himself up, brushed off the front of his long grey robes and backed onto the chair, keeping his eyes trained on the prince. “Thank you, Your Highness.”
“And you rejoice in the name of Greyskies Swampwatcher, I believe?” asked the prince, the faintest of derisory smiles lifting one side of his mouth.
The little wizard nodded his head, “Indeed, Your Highness.”
“So. Tell me of this strange sight you thought so unnoteworthy.”
“Oh, it was not unnoteworthy, but I didn’t think that it would interest the likes of you who have travelled so broadly, Sire.” As the prince began to lose patience, Greyskies hurried on, “I saw three sorcerers gliding between the trees in the swamp, quite high up. And each of them was carrying another sorcerer on their back.”
The prince raised his eyebrows. “Really? And are you sure they were sorcerers?”
The wizard looked confused, “What else could they be? Actually, now you mention, I think one of them may have been a wizard – hard to tell without talking to them.”
“And how close to you were they?”
Greyskies tilted his head to one side as he considered, “At least a hundred yards away. I really only caught a glimpse of them deep within the swamp. I was wading around in the shallows collecting some particular herbs that can only be found there. Normally, I stay on dry ground - too many nasties in those waters – but now and again I risk it.”
“So, do you think these people are living within this swamp of yours?”
Greyskies coughed to clear his dry throat, “I wouldn’t think so. Too many insects. Nowhere to live except in trees and I would have expected to spot them from time to time if there were a number of people living there.”
“Hmm. I see you have thought this through.”
Greyskies coughed again, “Plenty of time for thought in your cells, Your Highness. Nothing else to do.”
The prince stared at him for an unnerving moment before saying mildly, “You may help yourself to a drink, Greyskies. I will have one too.” He waved at a small table to the side that bore a large cut crystal jug of water, several glasses and an array of fruits and small, exquisitely decorated cakes.
The wizard bobbed his head, “Thank you, Sire.” As he poured the water Greyskies, who had not been given anything to eat or drink since he had been dragged in just before midnight, looked longingly at the food but kept carefully away from it. Once he had handed the prince his glass and sat down, he gulped his water in one draught. “Ah, that’s better,” he sighed, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Thank you.” He glanced uncertainly at the empty glass in his hand, wondering what to do with it.
The prince raised his eyebrows, “Would you like another glassful?”
Greyskies hesitated as he considered whether he risked overstepping the prince’s goodwill by accepting.
Correctly interpreting his hesitation, Jarand said, “I would not have asked you, had I not wanted you to have it. You may take another.” As the wizard reached the table again, he added, “And you may bring me that platter of cakes. I believe I am a little hungry.”
Looking resolutely ahead, Greyskies offered the heavy platter to the prince. Jarand took his time choosing before waving the wizard away. Just as the wizard was about to return with his water to sit down, Jarand said, “You may choose something for yourself also, Master Greyskies.”
Despite the prince’s apparent courtesy, Greyskies could not help feeling that he was being toyed with. He sat nibbling on his cake, keeping his eyes warily on the prince. For a few minutes, Jarand seemed to have forgotten him but as soon as the wizard dropped his guard and addressed himself more fully to his cake, he looked up to find the prince’s grey eyes studying him. He jumped with fright and crumbs of cake bounced onto the floor.
“I beg your pardon, Your Highness,” mumbled the wizard through a mouthful, “I did not mean to keep you waiting.”
Surprisingly, the prince smiled, “Don’t panic, Greyskies. I am not going to eat you. When you are ready, you may tell me how these men were dressed.”
Deciding to take the prince at his word, Greyskies finished off the last mouthful of cake, drank the rest of his water and stood up to brush himself down. Then he sent a trickle of grey magic to place his glass and the prince’s empty glass on the table. Once everything was back in place, he sat down again and answered, feeling much more at ease now that he was no longer so hungry, “That is an interesting question, my lord. Five out of the six of them were dressed in similar clothing. The sixth wore green robes. He was the one I thought might be a wizard.”
“Interesting. So they were wearing uniforms, were they?”
The wizard shook his head. “No, sire. I would not describe them as uniforms. They were wearing light brown shirts and leggings. They were not tailored as uniforms are. More like the sort of clothing worn by farmhands but not quite.”
“I see. That is very interesting indeed.”
“Is it, Your Highness?” As the princes eyebrows snapped together, Greyskies realised he had been over-familiar. “I b-beg your pardon. I should not have asked that.” The wizard noticed with some irritation that he was trembling.
After subjecting the wizard to a few seconds of silent scrutiny, the prince continued, “And do you remember anything else about these men?”
Greyskies swallowed, “They were a good distance away but I think at least one of them may have been a woman, sir.”
“What? Dressed in leggings?”
“Possibly, sir. I could have been mistaken.”
“Hmph. Anything else? Could you see their eyes, hair colour, size?”
Greyskies shook his head dubiously, “Not really sir. Certainly not eyes at that distance.” He frowned as he tried to remember, “Most of them seemed to have brownish coloured hair. One of them had hair that looked a bit lighter but it was hard to tell amongst the shadows. And one definitely had black hair.” The wizard shrugged. “That’s about it, I think. I couldn’t tell how tall they were. I only caught a glimpse of them between the trees.
The prince leaned forward, suddenly intent, “So when did you see the people?”
“Towards evening, yesterday.”
Suddenly the prince’s hand slammed down on the arm of his chair, making the wizard jump in fright.
“Blast it! Why am I surrounded by incompetents? Why did they not bring you to see me last night? Now we have lost precious hours.” Jarand pulled a cord at his side that brought guards running into the room. “Gorval, tell Captain Harkell to prepare eighty men to be ready to leave within the hour, armed and provisioned for several nights away. Find a horse for our wizard friend here and have Storm saddled and ready for me at the front gates in one hour.”
The guard bowed with his hand over his heart, “Your will is my command, Your Highness.”
Without even acknowledging the guard’s response, the prince turned to the wizard and snapped, “You will be coming with us to guide us and give us your local knowledge. I am appointing you as my personal wizard until Journeyman returns.”
The wizard stood and bowed, “Thank you, my lord. It would be an honour.” In actual fact, the last thing he wanted was to have his peaceful, generally solitary lifestyle disrupted but he bowed to the inevitable with the best grace he could muster, aware that any hesitation on his part would be foolhardy.
By mid-afternoon, the column of soldiers headed by Prince Jarand, Captain Harkell and the little wizard had reached the edge of the forest. After a brief consultation, the column turned to the right and travelled parallel to the base of the mountains until it reached the point where the forest edge swung around to the right, away from the foothills.
At a nod from Jarand, Captain Harkell raised his hand and brought his men to a halt. The captain swivelled in his saddle to address the wizard. He noted with wry amusement that the wizard was looking even more dishevelled than when they set out.
“Not used to horses?” he asked with some sympathy.
Greyskies drew himself up. “No sir, I am not. And I made the reverse journey late last night with my hands tied to the pommel. My legs are killing me.”
The captain flicked a warning glance in the direction of the prince, “But no doubt you feel honoured to be able to serve your prince?”
“Of course I do,” grumbled the wizard. “But it doesn’t stop my legs from hurting.”
“A twenty minute break, I think,” said the prince, “while Grumble Guts here advises on the terrain and our next move.”
“Dismount,” ordered the captain, springing lightly from his horse.
Before the suffering little wizard had time to lift his leg over his horse’s back, the captain was at his side taking most of his weight as he more or less fell out of the saddle. When he hit the ground, the wizard’s legs crumpled beneath him but the captain’s strong arms held him until he had recovered himself.
Greyskies huffed, “Thank you, Captain. That was most kind of you. It would have done my dignity no good at all to have landed in a heap in front of your men.”
The captain gave a friendly laugh, “All of us know what it feels like to be stiff after a long ride, and for someone who has never ridden, you have done a lot of hours in a short time.”
“When you are ready, wizard,” said the prince dryly, “perhaps you can spare us some time to explain where you saw these people and in which direction they were heading.”
“I beg your pardon, Your Highness.” Greyskies took a swig from his waterbag before sweeping his arm around from straight in front of him to the right. “The swamp is in that general direction, following the line of the Montraya River south for the first five miles or so. If we enter the forest here, we will come to the edge of the swamp in another three or four miles. There are only narrow tracks through this part of the forest. Not many people live near the swamp. There is a wider road that leads to the lake at the foot of the mountains where the river has its source,” he indicated slightly to his left, “but the people I saw were travelling away from the mountain.”
“And where did you see these people?”
“More or less straight in from here, perhaps a little to our right.”
The prince turned to Captain Harkell. “So is it reasonable to assume that they would continue in that direction?”
“Failing any other sightings or information, yes. I don’t know what manner of people you are hunting, my lord, but do you have any idea where they might be heading, and whether they would wish to remain concealed in the forest or break out into the open?”
The prince’s grey eyes narrowed. “As you so rightly assume, the nature of these people is none of your business. In answer to your questions, I do not know their intentions or where they are heading but I would like to find out. However, unless they had a particular reason for doing otherwise, I would expect them to stay within the bounds of the forest.” He turned to the wizard, “Does the forest extend further south beyond the end of the swamp?”
“Yes, Your Highness. The swamp finishes where the river cascades through rapids into a steep, narrow, heavily wooded valley that continues for another couple of miles. Although there are farmlands on either side, the valley itself is too steep to sustain any type of agriculture. After that, the river spreads out, and there are farmlands right up to its banks.”
“Thank you, Greyskies. Your knowledge of the area is very comprehensive.”
The wizard flushed with pleasure and bowed. “A pleasure, Your Highness.”
“So, do you have any idea what might lie at their journey’s end if they continued in that direction?”
Greyskies’ brows crinkled in effort but after a few moments, he shook his head regretfully. “No, Sire. I do not know enough about what lies deep within the swamp and I can think of nothing remarkable in the surrounding bushlands.”
After several minutes of silence, during which the prince thought through possibilities, Jarand galvanised into action, “Right. Can we cross this river at any point?”
“Only by skirting around the lake at its source or by ferry which is at least… hmm… sixteen miles south of here. And there is, of course the bridge right back at Montraya.”
“Then we shall travel to this lake, send half the men around to the other side and keep half on this side. Then we will travel along both edges of the swamp towards the south and hopefully trap them within the swamp or in the bottleneck of the steep valley. Captain, I want you to ask through the ranks for any sorcerers who are adept at levitation and bring them to the front. Clear? We leave in fifteen minutes.”
Prince Jarand’s decision directed his troop straight towards the woodfolk’s firesite near the lake.