Desmond Cylmar’s hands sweat profusely within the confines of his soft leather gloves, its salty odor permeating through the creases as he gripped the reins tightly. His steed churned its legs as it barreled through the forest at an unrelenting speed, clouds of dust swirling momentarily before kicking up into an obscuring veil. Marring its teeth and bucking its head, the horse ground the earth harder as Desmond kicked its flanks with his heels, spurring its gait into abandon. Saliva began to stream from his mount’s mouth, splattering upon the earth in dusty globs.
The rider kept most of his face concealed under a bandana, black as night, to protect against the elements on his perilous flight. He wore leathers of the same darkness that bound to his body, his muscular definition eager to force itself through. Subconsciously pulling his cowl up tightly upon his head, he unknowingly kept his face obscured as if to hide. Dark as night, his entire ensemble cloaked him in the shallowest of shadows save for a broach of significant quality that clasped his cape loosely to his back, its dazzling gold and silver entwined ropes signifying his status; a messenger of the highest order.
The trail through the forest wove like a snake through a field of grass, each corner blind to the next as the wrangled oaks stretched their gnarly branches into the still air. The bark and branches of the ancient trees seemed to have mostly eroded off like molting fur, patches of green and black spotted flesh beneath revealing a sickly nature. Sparse of leaves but dense enough to eclipse the blazing sun above, the aged oaks of the Old Wood seemed alive with wooden arms poised to snatch anyone who dared approach. Quiet and void of any life, the sound of Desmond’s horse pounding the earth echoed through the maze of trees.
As he turned a corner, the winding of the road evened out into a long stretch, disappearing into the hazy shadows ahead. Slowing his horse to a trot, he began scanning the edges of the trail for signs of disturbance, the coarse underbrush lazily folding into an entwined border with barely a chance to pass. He traveled for some time, the repetition of natural growth making his eyes begin to water and haze. Hoping off his saddle, he knelt down to rest, rubbing his hand against his face in an attempt to settle down. Taking a deep breath and looking back up at the expanse ahead of him, he distantly inspected a cluster of bushes that seemed out of place as his vision returned. Standing back up and wrapping his reins around the horn of his saddle, he patted his horse softly upon its neck before walking towards the forests uninviting presence. Kneeling down, his hands grazed upon the leafy passage.
The hardened soil had a slight depression to it, nearly invisible to the naked eye. Caressing it with a feathered touch, his eyes penetrated deeper into the wood for more signs or a pathway to follow. A myriad of colorful flowers flecked themselves between the deeply green ferns that encumbered the forest floor, dense and uninviting. Carefully stepping over the threshold of the brush and into the thick, Desmond began to creep north through the ominous shroud the Old Wood naturally produced.
Well over an hour had passed since the messenger left his steed alone upon the deserted road, his determination pressing him to traverse deeper along the hidden path. Lightly stepping over rotting branches and clusters of dried leaves, the messenger made nary a sound. He moved through the forest with experience and poise, his cloak gracefully draping itself over the minute tracks he made in the soft soil, forcing the disturbed dirt into a smoothed track. Pausing, Desmond squinted hard as he halted his advancement a breath, his eyes fixing upon a small cottage hidden in the shade of the darkened wood.
The building stood alone within a tight circle of trees, their variable leaves blotting out any sunlight from above. Deep greens enveloped the cottage, its limestone façade overgrown from the moss that tenaciously grew rampant. The only fair distinction the building had from a boulder within the depths of the Old Wood was the spiral of smoke leading up from a chimney in the back. Clean and tailored, the vegetation seemed untouched to the naked eye; as natural as could be. But for the tracker, he could see the winding paths that the ferns seemed to mask.
Desmond surveyed for a minute, observing the landscape carefully. Stacks of wood hugged the northern wall of the cottage in neat piles with a woodsman’s axe hanging loosely from an oaken stump. Hides of rabbits and deer hung taut, drying solemnly on sinewy cords on the southern end of the clearing. A few feet from the door to the cottage stood a wooden contraption; moist leathers stitched together in a sloping bag swaying in the middle of the frame with droplets of water seeping through the seams. Smiling at the engineering, Desmond took a step forward.
An arrow grazed his cheek, its serrated head tearing through his black bandana and biting his flesh like a razor. Desmond’s head twisted in the same direction as the arrow, his eyes tracing the wooden projectile until it struck a tree behind him and shattered with force. Grimacing, he spun back around to an empty forest. Eyes wide in awe, Desmond placed his hands upon the two gleaming daggers attached to his belt.
A second arrow came screaming from between two trees on the far side of the clearing, as if it had materialized from nothingness. Stooping his head slightly, he could feel the air displace around his hood as he tried to discern its origin.
The wood sat quiet.
Desmond crouched as he waited in anticipation.
In a blinding flash, a shadow emerged from around a gnarled oak a few paces away from Desmond, an arrow already loose in the air with another on the nock before he could react. Piercing through his blackened leather tunic and digging into the flesh on his shoulder, he cried out as the mysterious hermit fired his second shot. Desmond curled over to snap the wooden shaft in half while the other missile whistled by, the screaming of the projectile reverberating through his ears. Shifting back onto his haunches to look up at his assailant, he gasped as the woodsman careened at him with unrelenting speed, two glistening kukris in each hand directed at Desmond’s humbled body.
Desmond rolled backwards, one leg flat on the ground as the other connected with the assailant’s stomach. Striking the woodsman’s wrists with his own palms, Desmond pushed the man off the ground and over his head. Crying out in pain from the twisting of his arm, the messenger grasped at the crimson wound on his shoulder that pumped blood like a spigot.
The woodsman landed deftly with dexterous precision, twisting while rolling on his back and rising to his feet in one continuous flow, his head held down with a similar black hood masking his face. Both blades teetering in his hands as he sized his prey, he stood stoic. Desmond’s face twitched slightly as he cleverly attempted to reach for a dagger on his belt. As his fingers wrapped themselves around the cool metal hilt, the woodsman charged.
Desmond yanked the dagger from its sheath just in time to parry the first strike from his assailant, the vibrations running through the tempered metal into his bones. Keeping his right arm as still as possible, he crossed his left over to block another blow with his modest bit of steel, the strength of the woodsman nearly prying the dagger from Desmond’s hand. The woodsman brought a kukri up in the air with a downward swipe, Desmond shifting his weight and thrusting his dagger up to block. Without warning, the woodsman’s momentum changed as his foot came up and connected with Desmond’s lower thigh.
Crying in pain, the messenger keeled over face first into the earth, his face grinding into the mud as he slid. He cared little as he was twisted onto his back and pinned down as the woodsman straddled his chest, surrender a viable option. Thrusting his kukris into the soil adjacent to Desmond’s head, the cloaked man leaned in towards his prey.
“And you are?” he said, his voice gruff with a pang of anger from the back of his throat.
“Desmond,” the messenger replied, his voice pang with fear. “Cylmar, emissary for King Laternus.” Exhaustion had broken down all semblance of confidence as he lay there helpless and terrified.
“Bit far from the castle, wouldn’t you say?”
Desmond tried to squeak a smirk through his apparent consternation. He refused to respond as he stared up at the assailant.
The woodsman lifted one of his blades and brought it across Desmond’s chest slowly, grazing the tip along his hardened leather tunic, leaving a long white scratch. Coming to a stop at the golden broach that clasped his cloak together, he tapped it lightly with the flat of his kukri. “Wearing the king’s seal does not make you an emissary,” he said slowly.
Desmond gazed upon the man with a squint, his lower lip quivering as he held back his contempt.
“I got a box of these in my cupboard from neighboring kingdoms,” the woodsman continued, flicking the end of the broach with the tip of his blade. “You keep that tongue knitted up, I might add yours to the collection.”
Desmond swallowed hard, struggling to wash down the lump of fear that clogged his throat. “All the same,” he whispered nearly inaudibly.
“Humor me,” the woodsman jested as he released his hold on Desmond and stood, taking a few steps back with his kukris teetering in his hands again. “Let’s say you’re an emissary for the king, Mister Desmond.” He cocked his head sideways slightly as he spoke, walking in a large circle around the prone messenger. “And let’s pretend for a minute that you, as emissary to the king, had some pressing business out here in the middle of the Old Wood. Pray tell, do you find yourself lost now?”
Desmond chose his words carefully, slowly sliding one hand along his side upon the ground before pushing up, hoisting his body into a sitting position. “On the contrary,” he said with confidence, “I think I’ve found my destination.”
The woodsman bellowed a mighty roar, head tilted up and shoulders back as he bucked in a hyena-like fashion, although his eyes never left their mark.
“Oh, you must elaborate,” he said with a mirthful tone. “Please continue, emissary of the court.”
“I am looking for a man, a hermit if you will,” Desmond began, laying his bloodied arm in his lap as he looked down to the broken arrow shaft protruding from his shoulder. His heels dug into the soft soil as he brought his legs up, attempting to get a bit more comfortable. “He’s said to live here in these woods, as contemptuous as that act may be.”
The woodsman managed another laugh, shaking his head as he circled around Desmond’s backside and continued his slow pacing. “And you know this hermit?”
“Only of reputation,” Desmond continued.
“Well, by all means, since you are apparently lost,” the woodsman projected, “let me help point you in the right direction. Perhaps I know of whom you speak.”
Desmond reached up and snatched the bloodied bandana from his face before dabbing at the clotting blood around his shoulder wound. “I’ve a feeling you might.”
“Oh, this is good,” the woodsman commented with delight, nearly skipping a step as he walked. “Please, describe this hermit for me?”
Nodding, Desmond smirked a little despite the immense pain shooting through his arm. “Medium height, black hair and tanned skin. He’s said to have green eyes, though I’ve heard different rumors about it.”
“Pretty generic,” the woodsman stated, shrugging his shoulders.
“Also said to always carry with him two uniquely crafted blades… much like the two in your hands.”
The woodsman stopped in his tracks.
“Might have found these too, in my travels through these woods,” he delivered at length. “Assumptions in these parts might get you killed.”
Desmond stared coldly at the man in black, his blades teetering in his hand as he towered over the bloodied messenger.
“What do you want with this man?” the woodsman asked sternly, breaking the gazing lock between the two men.
“It’s not all for me to say,” Desmond explained coolly.
“Try,” the woodsman commanded, pointing one of his blades down at the humbled messenger.
Sighing hard, Desmond cracked his mouth slightly, exhaling his deep breath. “There’s trouble in the northern reaches of Greenmire, something the army has not been able to squelch. The king tasked me with finding a man, the one I described here in the Old Wood. That man, I believe, to be you.”
The woodsman knelt down in front of Desmond, tapping his temple softly. “You’re a keen fellow, but boldness will get you killed someday,” the woodsman remarked. “I suggest you turn back, find your horse and return home. You go home, and you tell your king you failed, that there was nothing here. You do that, and you be content with that decision.”
“And I’m to listen to the words of a random thief of brooches and daggers?” Desmond grunted back, fire burning in his belly. The woodsman laughed.
“I am Riley, the man you’re looking for,” the woodsman said at last, easing the tension in Desmond’s muscles. “I am Riley Wyndich, and I am saving your life. Return home, and forget you ever saw me.”
“I would love to,” Desmond acknowledged, “but it would be in vain.”
“In vain, how?” the woodsman inquired, his interest piquing.
“The king is only a few hours behind me, if not already where I left the main road. He’s here to talk to you personally, Riley. Do what you want, but he’s determined to find you.”
The woodsman rose from his perch and removed his cowl. Biting his lip, he shook his head in disgust. “I guess he thinks he’s not going to let me retire this easily then,” he said with a smile.