A pat on the shoulder was all I recieved as a farewell, but I knew the full meaning behind it - they were with me, in their thoughts though not body. I didn't need more of a reassurance though. I lept on the broad back of Rowan,and patted her on her satin-soft neck, the mane tenderly curling around my fingers. She understood me well enough, carried me forth with a fluent stride.
The sun was a pale disk on the misty sky, much unlike the blazing brass punisher it is in the southlands, still I pulled the brim of my hat lower - I should give my eyes some rest, Rowan was more than able to follow a road we have agreed upon. Instead, I let my ears experience the surroundings... all of a hunter's senses must be sharp so that he might live another day.
Rowan's step was like a metronome dividing the ambient sounds into precisely defined parts, the whistle of wind in the treetops, the rustle of dancing leaves, the chitter of squirrels and bubbling of streams, love-songs of birds and the hypnotic hum of bees.
Chewing on a handful of nuts and dried fruits, I let myself be carried along. Nibbling on something was not that unusual for me... I tend to eat from dawn 'till dusk no pause, yet it does not show - much to my chagrin, and to the delight of my animal companions, who know that a snack is never far.
Timber, who was striding along my steed, suddenly became alerted - there must have been people ahead. Riding around a turn of the road, I saw them - several men, with suspiciously gleeful faces, one of them gesticulating wildly, and agitatedly speaking to his companions, apparently the center of their attention: "And I tell you, we'll hang them all, and make their ill-gained riches ours!" The rest cheered, while he continued: "And the wenches, them we..." that was the time they noticed me.
Instinctively, their hands slid down to their belts to the hilts of their weapons. I did not move - I still could draw my blade should the need arise before they'd be able to cover the distance between us. All I did was to raise my head slightly, and narrow my eyes, making my red irises into to two embers, while Timber snarled, his posture a threat.
I mustered them - unshaven, scarred, with battered yet serviceable gear, and I felt the aura that surrounded them - they were a pack of jackals ready to tear down a victim showing signs of weakness.
Muster me they did as well, their beady eyes considering the possibility of gaining a sword, and a horse cheaply. I rode by them, staring them down, locking my gaze with their leader. I saw the brute's temper in them, the desire to harm, and claim all he could get - if he was a pig, he would gorge himself to death, if he was a swamp he'd bubble up in an attempt to drown the fields and soil all who pass by. In his heart he was a coward though, fearing that somwhere out there might exist someone like him, yet stronger, who'd blow out his candle. After whatseemed to be an eternity, he averted his gaze and let me pass. Little did he know that I spent countless hours training my will with my mentors, whether it was trying to reach my talent, or to endure pain and a lack of sleep. Still more thanks go to Sunfire, whose unblinking gaze of a bird of prey I learnt to mimic to be closer to him ... instead of studying or training, I sometimes spent long hours with Timber learning how to howl, or matching Sunfire's keen cry full of longing.
Well did I memorize those savage faces of the brigands, for I felt it in the gut that I might stumble across them once more.
I still wondered what could have made them so merry, when I arrived at the hill's crest, and saw the valley beyond, with orchards, a few groves and the town of Cuedrim, my destination, beyond... on its edge, like an ocean throwing itself against cliffs, stood a dark brooding mass - the destination of my travel, a wood perilous and mysterious.
Yet something closer by far caught my attention - under the boughs of an old maple tree stood a small figure removing a cut noose from around its neck - probably a victim of the men I passes a moment ago, who must have left her in the tree after they have heard Rowan's iron-shod hooves approach. Apparently, she was more than able to fend for herself, and thus I kept my distance, and sought cover behind a few bushes, a hiss from me telling Rowan to lie down and be silent.
The young woman stood there, mustering her bruises, yet did not seem severely hurt. I saw no need to interfere now, but might do so if I stumbled across the brutes again.
A sheet of paper caught her attention, swept by the wind from the direction of Cuedrim, she picked it up swiftly - with a quickness like that, I wondered how the brigands might have caught her. I observed her reading, and compared the time she spent reading to the amount of text... it did not take too long. She might have some education ... I decided to remember this one too. I might need aid in my endeavour, and would have to choose wisely whom to trust.
I stood there unmoving until the stranger, after a brief moment of consideration, produced a few well-hidden bags from a bush, and strode forth, in the direction of Cuedrim. What might have been the sheet's contents? I was certain to lear it soon.
With a whistle, I called my friends, and mounted Rowan again, patting her: "It is not far now, soon you will get a stable full of straw and I'll brush you like you like it most." I patted her again and placed a soft kiss on her neck.
The road was good, and soon, OI reached the hamlet, and could not fail to notice two facts - the amount of strangers crowding the streets, and leaflets hung on walls and pillars. Feeling their gazes, I shivered and drew my cloak closer to me. My eyes slid down to the paper, reading the mayor's request for assistance. "If I am to go into the wood anyway, I might as well get paid for it" I thought, and headed off towards the town square, buying a few rats on a stick at a stand, and chewing absent-mindedly.
In front of the mayor's dwelling, I saw a figure well known to me, a petit femme, toying around with a trinket. An adventurer - as I thought. I would wait and see who else showed up, and join the group most appealing to me.
I put on a professional face, and approached the mayor's manor. The first impression counts most - and I didn't want the major to offer me a few nickels just because he considered me an underfed kid.
I sat there in the saddle, and wondered what the future would bring.