“What did you do with the girl?” Hunter asked.
The four, now tied up men, sat on the big one Jack had kicked in the crotch. Brick—they had learned everyone’s name—still hadn’t come back to consciousness.
“We saw the wagon,” Hunter said, “and we know she’s not there. So where is she?”
The men didn’t respond.
“Well, someone here needs to start talking, or I’ll let Jack here do to you what he did to Brick,” Hunter said pointing at the man at the bottom of the pile.
“She got away,” Connel said.
“Connel,” the short fat man interrupted him.
“Bert, you saw what the boy did.”
“Yeah, but they aren’t really go—”
“Stop playing games,” Hunter interrupted. “We know he’s lying. If she had escaped there would be tracks, and there aren’t any tracks. What did you do with her?”
“You can’t see any tracks because of the spell,” Connel said.
“What spell?” Hunter asked.
“The one that covered her tracks,” Connel said as if it were obvious. “The leaves on the ground moved behind her.”
“Wait,” Bert interrupted in his whiny voice, “how do you know? I thought you said you didn’t see her, Connel. You told us you saw the flames and came running, just like the rest of us.”
Connel’s face looked more and more guilty by the second. “I kind of let her go.”
The whole camp erupted. Bert turned red and leaped toward Connel, trying to smother him under his body weight. The other two men in the group jumped into the fray as well.
Hunter wasn’t letting them get too distracted. “I guess only one of you gets to live then,” he shouted above the brawl. That got their attention. They all settled down, Bert still fuming and red, the other two men holding on to their wounds, and Connel steadying himself as he sat up straight. How does he do it? Jack thought. He knew Hunter had no intention of killing them, but somehow he could act mean and they believed him. It was like there were two different Hunter’s.
“Connel, is it?” Hunter asked.
Connel looked up at him, afraid of what might happen next.
“There’s a cell at the back of the wagon,” Hunter continued. “Do you know where the key is?”
Connel’s eyes flicked over in Bert’s direction. Jack followed his glance and noticed a key ring hanging off of Bert’s belt. Bert turned his body and leaned back as if he was trying to disappear in the darkness.
“Hand them over,” Jack demanded, surprising himself as he waved his sword in Bert’s face. Trembling, Bert extended his hip forward so Jack could take the keys. Maybe what Hunter was doing wasn’t that hard. Jack reacked forward, pulled the keys off Bert’s belt and threw them to Hunter.
“Alright,” Hunter said, “everybody into the wagon. Not you, Connel.”
Bert started grumbling but Hunter silenced him. Fuming the whole way, the short man walked to the back of the wagon with the other two men and hopped inside. Jack stayed with Connel, pointing his sword down at the man sitting on the big thug. He hadn’t meant to kick Brick that hard.
“You let her go?” Hunter asked as he came back to Connel and Jack.
“That’s what I said,” Connel replied, still afraid of what they might do to him. Hunter crouched down closer to talk to him and Jack brought his sword down.
“We’re not going to hurt you, Connel. And I believe you now. You say a spell covered her tracks?”
“Mm-hmm.” He shook his head and spoke hesitantly. “I was getting wood for the fire when I saw her walking through. The leaves moved behind her after each step. I haven’t seen anything like that in a long time.”
Huner nodded in understanding. “What about the flames, Connel? Bert mentioned something about flames.”
“Like I said, I saw her walking through, but I couldn’t just let her get away. So I grabbed her from behind and I was about to take her back, but, I just couldn’t do that either.” Connel stopped as if replaying it in his mind. “She had said something early on about stopping the Blackness. We were going to take her to the witch, but I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t.
“I’m not alone either. I know Brick here didn’t like it,” he said patting the big thug on the back. “Trapping talking animals is one thing. Kidnapping little girls… I didn’t feel good about it. Especially if she can stop the Blackness. I saw her use magic. So I asked her if she was serious, and she said yes. She was about to leave when that wolf showed up.
“The wolf jumped at me and…I was going to die when she—she saved my life. I don’t know what she did, but all these flames appeared out of nowhere and the wolf was hurt bad. She ran away and the wolf ran away. When the others got there I told them I just got there too.”
When Connel finished, Hunter turned to look at Jack and waited for his opinion.
“I think he’s telling the truth,” Jack said.
“I do too. Do you know what the witch wanted with her?” Hunter asked.
Connel shook his head.
“I guess Bert doesn’t know either.”
“He says you never ask questions,” Connel said.
“Where were you taking her?”
“We were supposed to take her just outside of Avelin.”
Hunter paused to consider the information. “Which way did Jill go?”
“She went north. I do know she was headed north.”
Hunter stood up. “Well, Connel, we’re not going to put you in the wagon with the rest of the men.”
“No,” Hunter said. “But you have to help us tie up Brick here, and we’ll tie the two of you to one of these trees. Do you have any rope? Good. Go get it. Jack, time to get Betsy.”
Jack marched off into the woods. He found Betsy wide-eyed and curious about the battle sounds she must have heard. He led her back into the camp where he found Brick now conscious and tied up at his wrists and ankles. Beside Brick, Hunter was tying Connel up to a tree with what was left of the rope.
“Hunter,” Jack said. “What do we do now?”
Hunter tied up the last knot around Connel’s ankle, then he came over to talk to Jack where Connel and Brick couldn’t hear. “We look for Jill. The edge of the woods isn’t far, and then all this opens up into plains. Hopefully she’s hiding somewhere nearby. It’s also possible she got out of the woods and kept going north to Avelin. Either way, we split up and see if we can find any sign of her.”
“Okay.” Jack nodded as he led Betsy through the campsite. Jack wasn’t exactly sure what he was looking for. He didn’t know a whole lot about magic, but if a spell was covering her tracks he was doubtful they would find anything.
Jack scanned the ground anyway, and took time to look around for any newly grown flowers or trees. Black and half dead trees seemed blacker and deader in the night time. He hoped he would find Jill soon. But then, Jack arrived at the edge of the forest.
The trees loomed dark and forbidding behind him. Before him, patches of grass extended for miles and miles with mild hills. Above him, a few stars shone through the cloudy canopy with a brilliance he rarely ever saw from the top of Betsy’s shed back home. Not too far to his left a road protruded from the forest and shot out into the distance toward Avelin.
“Jack,” he heard behind him. It was Hunter. “Any sign of her?”
“I didn’t find anything.”
Hunter looked disappointed, but not surprised. “I didn’t either,” he grimaced. “At least she’s out of immediate harm. You’ll have to look for her in the morning.”
Jack didn’t miss the significance of what Hunter had said. “Don’t you mean we? We’ll have to look for her in the morning?”
“Come with me, Jack,” Hunter said as he turned back into the forest.
Jack wasn’t sure if Hunter was simply ignoring his question, or…Well, that was the only option. They walked along in the dark of the forest for what seemed like a long time before Jack saw light. They stumbled into a small camp. Roasting over the fire, was a goose.
“I went back to where Connel said he encountered Jill and the wolf,” Hunter said. He took Betsy’s rope from Jack and tied her to a tree while he spoke. “I saw some very small tracks, but they only led me to this goose. The poor thing was near starving and had a broken wing.
“Eat the goose, Jack. You’ve had a long day. A great day. Most men wouldn’t have been able to learn as much as you have, push as hard as you have, and fight as well as you did. And while I’m proud of you, you’ll feel it tomorrow. So eat. I’m going back to the other camp to take care of those men.”
“But wait,” Jack said. “What about you? Why aren’t you coming with me?”
Hunter looked off into the nothing for a great while before responding. “It’s hard to explain Jack. I don’t leave the woods. I didn’t promise you and Jill that I would take you to Avelin, only that I would show you the road. You saw the road and that means I’ve done my part. There’s work here to do. I’m sure because of Jill’s presence there are apple trees growing in these woods. This is my forest, and I will do what I can here—”
“But,” Jack interrupted.
“I don’t leave the woods.” Hunter said it with a finality that Jack knew he couldn’t fight.
Silence reigned between them.
“Help her stop the Blackness, Jack,” Hunter broke the silence one last time. “Help her stop the Blackness, and the next time we meet, Foreverland will be green again.”
Jack didn’t respond, and he wasn’t sure when Hunter finally slipped away. Jack realized that he would have to do this alone. Saving Jill was his mission, his responsbility. Hunter hadn’t fought for him, Jack had done all the fighting tonight. Hunter had prepared him. Jack would find Jill. He would do whatever it took to save her, and help her stop the Blackness.
Finally turning to the goose over the fire, Jack’s stomach rumbled. Aside from one apple in the morning, Jack hadn’t eaten anything. And then after all the sparring and the traveling he was tired.
The goose wasn’t fat, but it looked much tastier than he recalled from when they first entered the campsite. Juices dripped like caramel from the bird’s featherless body. Jack carefully removed it from the direct heat of the fire, and ripped off a leg from the impeccably roasted golden brown goose leg.
The taste was…
Rich was the only word that could possibly describe the flavor in his mouth. He found himself wishing he could spend at least one more day with Hunter. Today had been sword fighting, tomorrow should definitely be how to cook like this over a campfire. The skin shimmered in the night air like few treasures, begging him to eat more. And he did. Jack couldn’t resist devouring the entire goose. After he got his fill, the only thing that remained of the goose were its bones.
As Jack lay on his back to fall asleep, the few stars that twinkled between the tree branches seemed to him like little flecks of gold.