Chapter Two: A Traveler’s Tale
Splashing his way noisily through the puddles, the rain soaked rider and his mount picked their way up the verge to the great cedar tree to where Martin sat at its base. Ducking his head the rider sidled under the low hanging branches and the man slide wearily off the saddle and landed heavily on legs grown stiff from long riding.
“Hail, well met fellow mushroom!” the rider grinned as he pronounced this soggy greeting. “What has you out here in such lovely weather,” he asked as he removed his hat and vigorously shook causing water to spray from its brim.
With Eric’s urgent whisper still echoing in his ears, Martin, self-consciously indicated his half filled basket of herbs. “Uh, …”, he hesitated, “I was out gathering plants when this weather …” and he glanced up to indicate the protective branches. And as he did so, he was surprised to catch sight of a freckled face peering down from between the thick branches above the rider.
Quickly he glanced away afraid that his eyes would betray the hiding place of his new acquaintance. He saw the horse was steaming from his exertions. Certainly this rider had been riding hard, despite the casual manner he had adopted.
“What brings you to Harborton on such a wonderful day”, he queried.
“Well, I can tell you it certainly wasn’t the fine weather and the mountain air that got me on that saddle. No, I’m a messenger for the Elyrian militia and my Lord had need of my services…” he broke off and eyed Martin suspiciously.
“You wouldn’t have seen a young boy and a huge dog come down this road a few hours ago?” he asked as he peered intently at Martin.
“No, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of any soul on this God forsaken stretch of forest road! I’d as soon see some outlaws just to break the monotony!” Martin exclaimed. Smiling broadly he continued, “Tell me about this dangerous boy whom the Elyria are so eager to catch that they send their best riders out to intercept him in this weather. I bet there’s a good story behind this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone in Elyria is wearing a wooden spoon behind his ear”, he chuckled.
The messenger’s face did not reciprocate the mirth that Martin’s jibe implied, instead his face grew hard and his small eyes bored into Martin’s. With scarcely concealed anger he leaned forward and slowly spat out his reply, “My master’s not likely to be cuckolded by the likes of that half-witted dog-boy, nor do I appreciate having him insulted by some forest magpie collecting mushrooms.”
“Be glad I’m tired and still expected by the First Lord’s men tonight, or I’d thrash you soundly before delivering you to the First Lord.” And with that he rose abruptly, pushing past Martin and kicking his basket. “Get out of my way you useless root grubber,” he exclaimed as he climbed on his horse. Looking up and down the rain drenched road he muttered, “That boy has more devils on his tail than any woman could ever hang on his back”.
Soon the grey mists had all but obscured the rider as he rode down the road toward the nearest city gate. But the rider’s final words hung in the air like a scimitar poised over a thinly stretched skein of silk.
There was a soft thud as someone landed on the soft conifer duff beside him. Martin turned to regard the fugitive. The boy had a worried look on his face, but he held himself tightly in grip, looking Martin squarely in the eye, as he thanked him for the subterfuge and apologized for the unpleasantness that had he had visited upon the herbalist. “But now I must be off as that rider’s news bodes ill for my mission”.
“Not so fast, my boy, you owe me more than an apology,” Martin interjected. “You owe me some kind of explanation for the risk I took to cloak your presence and nearly getting myself skewered for my efforts”, he demanded.
And with that Martin planted himself squarely in front of the diminutive figure. But he had not reckoned with the dog whose paws now slammed against his shoulders and tumbled Martin into the mud. In the next instant he was looking up into the jaws of a menacing dog that stood astride his chest and growled quietly, but very convincingly.
“Big Dog, let him go,” Eric commanded with a tone that left no doubt about his authority over this huge beast. The dog slowly backed off Martin, but did not let him out of his sight. He stood taut with muscles bunched to spring should his master be confronted once again. But this time Eric beckoned to him to heel at his side. “Let’s walk as the light is fading fast and we had better make our way inside the walls sooner than later.”