Bannen Rothowar Jr. and his younger brother James ran blindly through the woods of southwestern Tanagaria, neither caring which direction they were headed. They only wanted to be away from the horrible scene they had just witnessed. They had watched from as safe distance as their older brother Aylan had fought valiantly, defeating all of their captors before being ambushed by a dark wizard. As the pale, ugly, dark clad man knelt over Aylan, the two boys turned and ran deeper into the woods. They had been running scared ever since.
“How long have we been running?” James asked, gasping for breath and leaping over a fallen branch.
“Not long enough,” Bannen replied in between his own gulps of air. “But I think it might be safe enough to walk a bit.” He looked behind him, but the old house, the wizard, and Aylan were long gone.
“Good,” James panted. “I was about to stop anyway.” Both of them slowed their gait to a tired walk and tried to catch their breath.
As they walked, the boys came across an old game trail and followed it. It was barely wide enough for the two to walk abreast, but Bannen Jr. knew it would cross a wagon path eventually. Only after the two walked for a bit and the threat of imminent danger dissipated did they take note of the forest itself. The canopy created by the trees above them was so thick that it nearly choked out the moonlight. The boys could barely make out the path before them, which had made running near impossible moments before. Funny thing what fear will do for you, Bannen thought to himself. He rubbed his arms, which had begun to ache since their pace had slowed. He had several cuts and scrapes from stumbling about in the dark through bushes and brambles. The boy had taken no notice at the time.
“What do we do now?” James asked forlornly. Bannen felt sorry for James, the boy who looked so much like their deceased mother. He was a bright blond-haired blue-eyed boy, but physically smaller than most his age and had not yet begun his training for knighthood. All the Rothowars through the ages became knights, or if incapable would lose their right to the House and become priests or scholars. Bannen Sr., their father and current king, had become both a knight and a scholar. Little Bannen had spent enough time with his father to know the man’s love of books and the sword as well. James loved books, but was not yet gifted with the strength to wield arms. He looked so small and meek now, walking through the forest in the dark and constantly looking over his shoulder.
“We walk, we find people, or we find shelter. If we find suitable shelter before we find people, we will catch some sleep.” Bannen walked on, resisting the urge to look over his shoulder as his nervous younger brother was.
“What if the people we find are just like the bad men that kidnapped us?”
“I don’t know,” Bannen replied honestly. “But we have no way to last out here in the woods, so we best take our chances.”
“I wish we had swords, then no one would try to kidnap us.” James pouted, kicking at the dirt as he walked.
“Too true,” Bannen said wearily, laughing to himself at the prospect of a ten-year-old and an eight-year-old driving back bandits. Sometimes he felt as if there was a larger age difference between the two of them, more than two years at the least.
The two followed the game trail for quite some time, marching solemnly through the dark woods and seldom speaking. The sounds of the woods filled there ears, frightening them both, but James a bit more than Bannen. The poor boy cringed at each howl no matter how far away it sounded, and even twitched whenever a branch broke underfoot. Bannen was sure James would be spooked by his own shadow if there was enough light to cast one.
Despite James’s fears, they trudged on until near daybreak. Just as they were about to try to find a good place to rest, they came upon an actual road, this one smooth and wide enough for wagon travel. Bannen breathed a slight sigh of relief and sat down on a large rock, which was probably a marker for the game trail they had emerged from.
“Time for a break, James,” he declared wearily. He slid off the rock so that his bottom hit the soft grass at the foot of it, and leaned his back against the sizable stone.
“Sounds good, I guess,” James replied nervously. “At least the wolves have stopped howling and the sun is about to come up.”
“At least,” Bannen echoed. “Maybe we’ll find a village later today.”
“It might be full of the same people that kidnapped us Bannen! We should walk further before we look for help, I say,” argued James. He was already lying down in the cool grass next to Bannen though, and had little else to say.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Bannen sighed. “It would be nice to know how we ended up here in the first place, though. I do agree, however. I don’t think I wish to meet anyone in this area just to be on the safe side.”
James nodded slightly in agreement, already falling asleep.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Bannen woke suddenly to the sound of a wagon rattling up the road in front of him. He sat up quickly and shook James hard. The shake must have been a bit too rough, because the younger boy let out a loud protesting yell. Cursing silently to himself, Bannen hauled James up and stumbled into the woods, away from the road. It was all for naught, however. The wagon stopped and a large burly man stepped down off his seat to peer after them.
“What are you two trespassers doin’ in mah woods? Better not be poachin’, I’ll tell the Delegate on you, I will. He don’t like it when people steals from the farmers!” He stood there with his hands on his hips, looking right in their direction. His shaggy man of curly black hair shook as he scanned the wood line with a disgusted look on his face. James and Bannen were crouched behind a bush, concealing them as well as possible, but James’s outburst and their noisy retreat had not helped them in the slightest.
“Don’t say anything,” Bannen whispered gravely. “Maybe he will just go away. If we have to I bet we can outrun him. He looks too fat to catch us.” James nodded quickly, his eyes wide with fright.
The large bearded farmer stared for a moment longer with his hands his hips, then shook his head and threw up his hands. He turned and walked back to his wagon, causing both the boys to release the breath they had been collectively holding in one big sigh of relief.
Their relief proved premature, however. The oversized farmer had only returned to his wagon to let out a brindled mastiff nearly as tall as the boys themselves. The dog nuzzled at his owner’s arm lovingly and tried to climb up to him before the man chastised him.
“Not now, Grace. Ya gotta find them poachers!” He scratched the big dog’s ears and pointed at the wood line. The mastiff’s demeanor changed in an instant. Her ears coiled back and her mouth curled into a snarl, growling deeply all the while. Bannen Jr. nearly fell back onto the forest floor from his crouch.
“Ya hear that? Im’a turn this loose on ya in about five seconds if ya don’t show yerself’s!” The curly haired farmer was staring in their direction, holding tightly to a rope tethered to his angry beast. He let a bit of the rope out in an attempt to establish the reality of his threat, the dog barking and gnashing her teeth viciously.
“All right, that’s it, go get ’em Grace-”
“Wait!” Bannen stepped out from behind their meager hiding place, pulling James behind him protectively.
The burly man pulled the dog back quickly, patting her on the rump gently to silence her. His eyes were wide as he studied the two ragged boys that had just appeared amid the trees.
“Well I’ll be damned,” he exclaimed in his deep rumbling voice, smiling now. “Yer just a couple a little fellas! I thought you was one o’ them worthless poachers that’s been floatin’ through here lately. Why didn’t ya just come out and say somethin’? Ol’ Grace here, she woulda took a couple digits off a yore fingers if I’d a let her come out there!” He gave his tawny mastiff a hearty love tap and motioned for the boys to come on out.
The boys approached warily, but approach they did. The two did not dare run, although Grace the mastiff appeared much friendlier now that they were apparently not poachers. Bannen noticed the man’s expression change they closer that got to him, however. The big man almost appeared concerned.
“You boys been playing awful rough today ain’t ya?” He gestured to their torn clothing and numerous scrapes painfully adorning their young frames. “If I didn’t know better, from the looks on yer faces and the cuts all over ya, I’d say you been runnin’ from somethin’.”
Bannen looked at James, so small and scared. He didn’t know what to tell the big man. He had no idea how they had been kidnapped, or who wanted them dead, or whether it was safe to try and find their father.
So he decided to lie.
“We’s just orphans, Mister Farmer Sir,” Bannen fibbed in the best woodsy accent a ten-year-old could muster. The animal handlers back at their father’s estate spoke in a similar way, although Bannen had never bothered to ask them where they originally hailed from. “They come to put us away in them schools for the chi’dren that ain’t got no Ma and no Pa, and we didn’t wanna go, so we run’d away.”
By now James was fidgeting nervously at Bannen’s side, unsure of what to say or do. Fortunately for the two of them, the big farmer misunderstood James’s apprehensive behavior and only saw a scared, scraped, and lonely little child. One look into poor James’s wide, blue eyed stare was enough to soften the burly man’s heart.
“I see,” the big man grunted with a hint of concern. “Well, if’n you boys come with me, I can take ya to town. We can see Miss Heinwin and ask if she’s got any need for a couple a’ dish scrubbers. I’m Farlon Whith, bah the way. Reckon I shoulda interduced myself by now.”
Bannen only smiled and nodded, throwing an arm around his younger brother. He gave little James a reassuring look, which the younger boy returned in the form of a disconcerted head shake. Bannen only shrugged his shoulders and climbed up into the wagon at the direction of the big burly farmer, James close behind.