Authors: Garry Spoor
G. T. Spoor
Copyright 2015 G.T. Spoor
Tullner had never been on this side of the base camp before, in fact, he tried to avoid it as much as possible. Unfortunately, he was under orders, so he didn’t have much of a choice. As a soldier of the Fennel Arms, now assigned to the King’s Command under Colonel Barshed, the first rule of war was to obey your senior officers, regardless of how much you really didn’t want to. And this was one of those assignments he really didn’t want to do. It wasn’t a bad assignment, not in the sense that it was dangerous, or overly difficult. He just didn’t feel comfortable around these men. They had a bad reputation with the rest of his squad, but then again, they had a bad reputation with pretty much all of Battalion C. They were unruly, ill-mannered and undisciplined; and those were their finer points.
Dismounting, he reluctantly tied his mare to a hitch just outside section F, otherwise known as, The Freak Show, by the enlisted men. Section F was a place shunned by most. It was not by chance it was as far away from headquarters as they could possibly place it, and still have it considered part of Base Camp Reilly.
One green pole marked the outer edge of the section, and where the King’s colors should have flown, there was instead, and old green banner waving in the breeze. He didn’t recognize the coat of arms it bore, but it was a violation of regulation sixteen, subsection four, paragraph six, to fly any flag, save those of the Province or the King.
Pulling off his riding gloves, he tucked them into his belt before taking the first step past the lone green pole. He was now officially in section F.
The guys in his squad talked a lot about these men and what they could do. Although he knew most of the stories had to be exaggerated, he still didn’t trust them. They were unnatural. These men were closer to mystics than they were to regular soldiers, and everyone knows, you can’t trust a mystic. That the mystics wouldn’t even lend aid to the war effort was proof enough they were untrustworthy. They were keeping themselves locked up in that tower. He had heard stories of that place as well. Stories about strange lights emanating from the top of the Tower and unnatural noises below the ground. All in all, it was an unholy places kept by unholy people, a place best avoided at all costs.
When he started up the path, he spotted one of those strange men, sitting with his back against a tree. He was an older man, probably in his mid to late twenties. His long black hair was pulled back into a pony tail and he sported a neatly trimmed beard. Based on his outwardly appearance, he looked more like a merchant than a soldier. He didn’t look up when Tullner approached and was more interested in the chain he was weaving out of blades of grass.
“Soldier, are you supposed to be on guard?” Tullner asked, trying to insert as much authority as he could into the statement.
The man looked around him, even going as far as to look under the old hat which sat on the grass beside him. He looked up at Tullner and shrugged.
“Don’t see any soldiers here,” he replied with a slight chuckle. “What about you, Tinn. You see any soldiers?”
“Can’t say that I do.”
Tullner quickly turned to see another man standing right behind him. Where did he come from and how did he get so close?
The new man, Tinn, was tall and lanky. His clothes looked two sizes too big for his thin frame and his hair was a mess of straw. He smiled at Tullner.
“He’s expecting you,” he said in a thick accent.
He wasn’t from around these parts, which was plain for anyone to hear.
“Who’s expecting me?” Tullner asked.
“Master Folkstaff, up at the command tent,” Tinn replied, as if the answer should have been obvious.
“How did he know I was here?”
“Because I just told him,” Tinn said, dropping down beside the other man who continued to add to his chain of grass.
“But I just got here.”
“Saw you coming about a mile off,” the second man replied without looking up. “Better not keep Master Folkstaff waiting.”
Tullner eyed the two men who now appeared to have dismissed him from their conversation. How did this weaver of grass see him coming from where he was sitting? How did this Tinn have enough time to get to the command tent and back without even being winded? There was definitely something strange about these soldiers, but then, they weren’t actually soldiers. They called themselves, “Hunters.”
He proceeded up the path toward the main camp, and was shocked to see a total lack of discipline, or any sense of order, throughout the section. These Hunters, who were supposed to be soldiers in the King’s army, weren’t even in uniform. They looked more like a bunch of vagabonds just lounging around on the edge of battle, engaged in idle talk, as if the cares of the front line meant nothing to them. They appeared to be quite at home here, away from anything that even resembled civilization.
They didn’t take much notice of him as he walked among them. They never hushed their voices or stopped their gossip for fear of him listening in. Not that he really understood what they were talking about. He caught bits and pieces of something to do with open bounties, contracts, and scripts. The words meant nothing to him, and he thought it safer to simply forget about anything he heard.
Tullner made his way up to the largest tent, where a tall, lean-looking man, who was causally whittling a piece of wood, slowly got to his feet. He dusted the wood shavings from his pants and then casually brushed aside his long shaggy blonde hair. He grinned at Tullner when he approached.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Corporal Robert Tullner to see the Major,” Tullner replied.
The shaggy haired Hunter gave him a quizzical look.
“I’m sorry. Who did you come to see?” he asked.
“The Major,” Tullner replied, pulling out a sheet of paper and quickly double checking his orders. It would be his luck to be looking for the wrong man in the wrong place. “I’m supposed to meet with a Major Robert Cornelius Folkstaff.”
“Oh, Folkstaff,” The Hunter laughed. “Why didn’t you say so? I’ll go get him for you,” he said, ducking into the tent.
Tullner shook his head in disbelief. If he ever addressed his commanding officer by just his surname, he would be up on charges before the last syllable left his lips. There was definitely a lack of discipline among this group.
The tent flaps parted and a large man stepped out. He was easily a foot taller than Tullner and about two feet wider. He had long brown hair, which was tied back in a tail, and an even longer beard, which was braided with beads and hung down to his waist. A wide-brimmed floppy hat covered his head and shielded his face from the light of the sun. He wore a ratty deer skin jacket and a pair of old knee high leather boots.
“You must be Tullner,” the big man said with a soft voice, which didn’t match his size.
“Yes, sir. Corporal Robert Tullner sir,” he replied, saluting the Hunter.
Folkstaff returned the salute, although not very enthusiastically. Turning, he spoke with the shaggy haired Hunter, who followed him out of the tent.
“Jackson. Where’s Veller?”
“Don’t really know, sir,” the Hunter replied, giving the camp a once over as if hoping to spot the elusive Veller. “Leary should know.”
Folkstaff shrugged. “Okay, where’s Leary?” he asked.
“He’s usually down by the med tent this time of day, or any time of day for that matter,” Jackson replied.
“Keep an eye on things here for me until I get back.”
“No problem sir, will do.” Jackson replied. “Oh, and, sir. Did you know you were a major?”
“Am I now?” Folkstaff replied with a shrug. “That’s news to me,” he said, and started off across camp with unnaturally long strides. Tullner had to run to catch up.
They walked in silence among the other Hunters and Tullner was a bit surprised no one even bothered to salute the man. He was a major after all. As he navigated around another tent, he suddenly stopped, turning to face Tullner.
“So, Barshed is actually going to send a squad into the Denal province after all?”
“I suppose so, sir,” Tullner replied. It wasn’t like he was privy to the Colonel’s plans.
“I see a mistake in the making,” Folkstaff said, shaking his head. “If he would at least let us scout out the area first, we could avoid needless action. But, I suppose he knows what he’s doing.”
Tullner decided not to reply to this. Second guessing a superior officer was a violation of the rules, but it didn’t look as if Folkstaff expected an answer as he started off again.
He followed the Hunter quietly through the camp to the med tent, where four men sat playing a game of chance out in the open. This was yet another violation of camp rules which appeared to go unnoticed. One of the men did acknowledge Folkstaff when he got closer, although, it wasn’t actually a salute.
“Care to join us, sir? We can always use an extra hand.”
He was a tall, good looking young man, rather well-kept when compared to his companions. He wore a pair of wire-rimmed glasses which were perched on the end of his nose.
“Not today I’m afraid.” Folkstaff said with a grin. “Where’s Leary?”
The smaller Hunter, who sat on the man’s left hand side, turned in his seat.
“Danny! Folkstaff wants you out front,” he shouted at the tent behind him.
No sooner did the Hunter turned his back on the game, then Tullner witnessed one of the other players steal a card right out of his hand. The move was so fast, Tullner wasn’t even sure it happened until the second Hunter grinned and winked at him. This would have been remarkable, in itself, if he didn’t just see two cards slid across the table, untouched by any player, into another man’s hand.
“How about you, kid? You want to take a chance?” One of the Hunters asked, nodding toward an empty seat.
“To say chance would indicate he would have one,” Folkstaff remarked. The men at the table laughed.
“You wanted to see me, sir.”
Tullner turned his attention away from the game, which was difficult to do, since the pile of chips in front of the smaller Hunter had now doubled in size, right before his eyes. This was definitely not normal, nor could it even be considered legal, from the game’s point of view.
The man who exited the tent was younger than most of the other Hunters. He was lean with short sandy blond hair and a sharp crooked nose. He looked first at Tullner then back at Folkstaff.
“Is there a problem, sir?” he asked.
“I’m looking for Veller,” Folkstaff replied.
“Veller? Why? Is something wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. Barshed has decided to send a squad in to Denal after all, and is in need of a scout. Veller knows the place well.”
“I see,” Daniel replied. “Well, more than likely, you’ll find her down by the river. She no longer stays in camp. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve seen her in over a week.”
“Yeah, I figured it was something like that,” Folkstaff replied. There was a look of concern which crossed between the two Hunters. Folkstaff thanked Daniel and, turning away from the tent, headed out into the woods. Tullner followed.
Leaving camp without permission was another violation of the rules, but from what Tullner saw so far, it appears the rules don’t apply to Hunters.
As they moved deeper into the woods, the noises from the camp diminished and then silenced by the gentle sound of running water. No worries, no wars, no rules, and no orders. For one brief moment, he could understand why someone would want to hide out here.
As they continued walking, Tullner had the feeling, they were being watched. The closer they got to the sound of running water, the stronger the feeling grew. Quickly scanning the horizon, he spotted something moving in the distance. It took him a moment to realize what it was, and he reached for his sword.
“I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” Folkstaff said, placing a hand on the young man’s arm.
“But, sir… that’s a… a bear,” Tullner whispered.
“Yeah, that’s a bear,” Folkstaff said calmly, a bit too calmly for Tullner’s piece of mind. “Black bear, I would say, by the general shape and size, although there aren’t too many other species around here. He’s been with us ever since we entered the woods.”
“And… that doesn’t bother you?”
“No, kind of expected it.”
Although Folkstaff wasn’t worried, it didn’t stop Tullner. He rested his hand on the hilt of his sword. There was a certain comfort in knowing it was there, although, how much good it would do against a bear, if it decided to attack, he wasn’t sure.
“There she is,” Folkstaff said, nodding toward a small clearing in the woods.
Turning away from the bear, Tullner saw an old willow tree leaning over the water. A large shaggy black horse, if he could call it a horse, was standing off to one side, eyeing him suspiciously. There appeared to be a lot of malice in the beast and Tullner wasn’t sure if he was better off dealing with the bear than the horse. As he got closer he saw amid the roots of the willow, a young woman leaning with her back against the tree. She was slight of build with long wild red hair. Her face was pale and she had rather vivid green eyes. The book she was reading was closed and resting on her lap. She was watching them when they approached, almost as if she was waiting for them.