Part 5: "Trust me."
With a groan, Peder reluctantly rose from his comfortable position and began stretching his tired muscles.
“We need to find Jaron. This news changes many things.” He offered a hand to the other man and pulled him to his feet, wondering if he should call for Valtiramiir. But if Jaron had summoned her, he must have a good reason.
“Who hired you?” he asked suddenly.
“I–” Slannin stopped abruptly and ran a hand through his damp hair. Avoiding Peder's eyes, he looked to the darkening sky, honestly wondering what to say.
A phrase entered his consciousness, and his eyes widened.
A second chance.
He looked at Peder, patiently waiting, and wondered at his desperate prayer, breathed just hours earlier.
"I know nothing of him. He heard of my... skills and sent for me with promise of a large payment," Slannin looked away. "I needed work... He set a time and place to meet, offered half of the pay, assuring the rest when the job was complete.”
“So, did you meet him?” Slannin shook his head.
“My dealings were with the messenger only – he alone would recognize me.” Peder nodded, thoughtful, and Slannin continued. “They are a band of rogues, masquerading as merchants, from the Twelve Isles. No better than pirates. The man tried in vain to conceal his nationality, but the parchment would have given him away on its own. It was a special paper made from the pressed and dried leaves of the Kenta tree, a type of Palm native solely to the Isles and used by the wealthy because it is only the wealthy who can afford such a luxury. Also, merchants are well-known to use it in their bartering.”
“I see.” Peder rubbed his chin where a light stubble was growing. Playfully, he slapped the other man's shoulder. “Ha! You would make a great Guard with those kind of deductions.” A thought made him pause. “Those papers contain the records of our treaty with the Aijan nation. If they were to fall into rebel hands, our alliance with that nation could be sabotaged. And they are a great people. In the possession of these rogues, the words could be twisted and our alliance virtually broken. Eliadan knows we have enemies even among allies. It could definitely start a war.” Peder ran a hand through his hair, now nearly dry, and rubbed his neck. “For now, they are safe. But we could stop this and guarantee it doesn't happen again. At least not with these brutes.” He glanced at Slannin leaning against a tree with arms crossed.
“And you share this with me?” Slannin asked, poking a finger into his own chest.
“Yes. I believe I can trust you. You may not have it made it out of the castle grounds with the bundle, but that was your intention. Still, as far as I am concerned, if you help me now, I will personally speak to my commander on your behalf. Unfortunately, I cannot promise any more than that.” Peder crossed his arms, allowing his words to sink in. “I like you, man. You're too good a warrior to waste on the bad guy's side.”
Slannin turned away and Peder closed his eyes.
Eliadan, he prayed, silently petitioning the Creator-King. Give me words to speak Your truth. And strength to carry it out. Show Yourself to this man. Peder nodded to himself, content to leave the matter in his God's hands. Opening his eyes, he found Slannin staring at him, something different in his eyes.
“What?” he asked, suddenly uncomfortable.
“I will help.”
The young Guard's mouth broke into a broad smile and he clasped the other man's forearm.
“Come on, then,” he said, pointing East, the direction he'd last seen Jaron heading. “If these guys turn out to be who you say they are, Jaron's gonna need some back-up.”
It was pitch dark in the Wyndor Wood by the time Peder and Slannin smelled smoke. For half an hour they jogged through trunks, over fallen logs and brush, and walked at intervals to rest, but always they were moving. To keep their course, Peder had to catch glimpses of the stars shining brightly through the thick branches of the ancient trees. This was going to be a long night.
With their eyes accustomed to the dense darkness, Peder and Slannin had little trouble navigating the forest. Occasionally, their way was lit by the glow of fluorescent mushrooms and the brilliant blooms of the Anthera flower, or the Flower of the Moon, a plant whose large white blossoms radiated a soft light, similar to the Light in the night sky.
Peder loved nights such as these.
Their progress slowed when they sensed the smell of woodsmoke. Creeping along like the variety of forest creatures they had encountered – five deer, a grumpy badger, and a lonely wolf – both men made it to the border of a camp, which was completely out of place in the beautiful wood. Peder counted four small tents, large enough for two men each, and one of ample measurements that could only be the headquarters for the leader of this company. In the center of the clearing, a sizable fire was burning, around which sat four men. The Guard's continued observation of the camp concluded at least one dozen men total, all of mixed origin and dressed in the garb of sailors from the Island countries. Their clothing was lightly colored in pale oranges, yellows, and browns. Among the men visible, two stood out, wearing the unmistakable gear of soldiers from the harsh mountains of Aijan.
Four men stood guard at different points around the perimeter; three were finishing a meal, and Peder could hear snores coming from the nearest tent, where two other men were resting before their watch. Slannin came to the same number of men and even pinpointed where their horses were held. He leaned close to the Guard and whispered into Peder's ear.
“Their horses are corralled fifteen yards from the eastern border. Count on at least two more men on guard.” Peder nodded in acknowledgment and started to speak but suddenly hissed.
Both men flattened themselves into the dense underbrush and lay stone still as a sentry patrolled by. Only until the footsteps faded did they relax. Peder found himself wishing for his longbow, which remained tied to Valtiramiir's saddle. Fingering the hilt of his sword, he wondered what to do.
"You have taken your time, I see." The words were whispered in Elvish right at Peder's ear. The speaker might as well have shouted the statement, for the young Guard jerked upward in astonishment, hit his head on the fallen log above him, looked at the spot where the words came from and, upon seeing the expressionless face of Jaron, no matter how familiar it was, fell backward onto his back with a grunt of some sort. Needless to say, the sudden movements caused the brush cover to move rather abnormally and two sentries came to investigate.
Slannin hissed at him and Peder scurried back to his spot, breathing hard, where he resumed his position on his stomach and lay as a rock.
Disinterested as they were, the guards stood above them for a full count of sixty, eyes half-alert searching for anything irregular, before moving on. Peder almost snorted out loud at their sluggish obliviousness. If he had missed so much as a broken twig during training, his hide would have been skinned and hung for such a foolish mistake.
When the men moved out of range, Jaron turned to Peder. His glare held warning, but behind it there was a smile. Silently, Peder dipped his head in apology and the Elf acknowledged by placing two fingers to the center of the younger man's forehead – a sign to learn from mistakes. Again, Peder nodded. Jaron's gaze found Slannin, who lay behind Peder. His eyes took in the man's sheathed daggers and dark clothing, now stained with dry sweat, then flicked back to Peder.
“Come with me,” he said softly, reverting to Gondian. Both men moved to follow the Elf as he zigged and zagged through the underbrush of the forest. Peder brought up the rear, allowing him the chance to access the skill of Slannin in stealth. The man moved like silk, seemingly floating from one spot to the next. Here one moment, gone the next.
Great, he thought, now I have to keep up with two ghosts. He grinned to himself and glided from cover to cover, mimicking the movements of his companions. When a mile's distance lay between themselves and the camp, Jaron called the threesome to a halt in a dense hollow of boulders and roots. The Elf crossed his arms.
“Explain.” Bent over, hands on knees, Peder looked up at the stern figure. Still trying to get his breath, he straightened.
“Long story short,” he began, saluting to his captain and gesturing to Slannin. “This man, friend. Papers, safe. Not with us, but safe. Bad guys in camp yonder number approximately twelve to fourteen total. Unknown number of Aijan soldiers included. Waiting for their thief and his treasure. Most likely, headed for coast. Ship possibly there to take them and their evil-ness elsewhere to start war and spread... er, evil.” Peder stopped the flow of words and took a deep breath.
Jaron was quiet. He nodded once.
“I had an idea they would head for the coast. Valtiramiir has flown ahead to confirm and should return at any moment.”
“Waiting?” Peder repeated. “Where?”
It was then he heard a deep chuckle resonate in his mind.
Don't look up, said the white dragon. Peder grinned. Slannin, too, had a slight smile.
“Cap, I have an idea.” Jaron's steady gaze fell on Peder.
“What if you and Lord Keighvyn made way for the beach, find the ship... dispose of her crew, and sink her. Meanwhile, Slannin and I give these guys some lessons in weapons and personal hygiene.”
Jaron remained immobile. Finally, he spoke.
“It's possible. Slannin, would you give us a moment?” asked Jaron, bluntly. With a slight nod, Slannin moved several yards out of ear-shot, yet well within their sight. He knew the Elf was suspicious, and not one fiber in his own being blamed the captain.
He wanted their trust. Raising his eyes to the canopy of trees, the man sighed.
Once Slannin was gone, Jaron's speech switched to Elvish.
“Can we trust him?”
Unflinching, Peder returned Jaron's steady gaze.
“Aye,” he answered without hesitation.
“You have no doubts?”
“None, sir,” was the reply. “He is with us all the way. Trust me,” Peder added softly. “He's changed.”
Jaron's green eyes held Peder's blue. Finally, he clapped a hand to the young man's shoulder.
The Elf let go a sudden chuckle.
“What did you do to him? 'Sock 'im one?' ”
The drawing is mine! It had been so long since last I actually sketched something. I believe the last drawing in my sketchbook was dated last December... So, I'm kinda proud of this one, though I made him a little too boyish. =]
(Pencil and ink. Picture taken with camera and edited.)