The darkness was coming. Even before the sun was set, the night's fingers were already raking across the sky, inky black fingers straining to catch the last slithers of sunlight as the blood-red ball retreated behind the horizon. I stood on top of the rise, watching the darkness race in from the east in a relentless tide. Soon the entire sky would be swallowed and the creatures of the night would emerge from their daytime haunts to begin their mischief.
At last, I turned away from the sunset and looked down towards the glade below me. The rise on which I stood hung over a small stream, scarcely a stone's throw across, and beyond that was a small open space surrounded by an impenetrable thicket of brambles, thorns and other hideous sprouting growths. The only way into the glade was via the small dirt track that wound through the trees, choked with tree roots and low-growing fauna. It was a treacherous path; leading on in one direction before switching back on itself, darting in and out of riverbeds, running in circles through tall groves of oak trees, slithering and scampering up and down the sides of steep gullies and clinging precariously to the corners of steep ridges, daring any foolhardy soul to follow it to its end. It was no surprise, really, that it had become so unused. Like many parts of the forest, years of neglect had made it wild and dangerous.
The soft thud of footsteps jerked me from my musings. An owl hooted nearby, and some small night creature rustled in the undergrowth as something moved through the trees. I smiled and climbed down the ridge, stepping easily over the streamlet and standing in the middle of the clearing. Finally, a figure in a long cloak emerged from the shadows. I inclined my head, and the shrouded figure did the same.
"You have news?" I asked.
"Indeed." said the figure, voice hushed, as if afraid of being overheard.
"Do tell." I said, a small smile tugging at the corners of my lips.
"The King is to travel to Pentsmont to court a bride. She is from a powerful family, I believe, and he seeks to secure their support for his future endeavours."
"Is that so?" I raised an eyebrow. I would never have thought that a young hothead like Percival would be so keen to take a bride so soon in his reign. I supposed his po-faced younger brother must have had a hand in this somewhere. "And how long will they be gone for?"
"Several days, I should think." my companion nibbled their lip thoughtfully for a few moments. "It will take time to set a date for the wedding, and longer still to secure a dowry and organise guest lists and-"
"Yes yes, I know." I waved my hand dismissively. I narrowed my eyes and peered intently into the face shrouded beneath the shadow of the hood. "You think it will give us enough time?"
"Easily. They do not know we are here, and thus will feel no need to move quickly. They will leave care of the land to stewards, I imagine, and they will most likely take some sort of royal escort." A flicker of a smile passed over the darkened face. "I doubt they will risk another encounter with bandits again."
I laughed at that. The buffoons had absolutely no idea that there was anything worse in the forest than a few vagabonds. Such naivety was comical. These people considered themselves so powerful, and yet they were so unobservant that they did not even notice that the cause of their own demise was waiting mere feet from them.
I turned to my hooded companion and smiled. "You have done well. We will move once the party have left. Everything is in place, and we are assured an easy victory. Soon, we shall show these overpowered fools that it does not do to cross us."
"We will make them pay." the figure agreed. "Forgive me, but I must be gone. Time is short."
I nodded, and the figure turned and rushed back into the trees. I turned back to the sky, where the night's dark tendrils had chased away the last of the sun's light, leaving nothing but a bloody smear above the distant hills.
"Soon," I whispered to myself, "soon ..."