By some sort of uncanny timing the last pair returned as Sarah declared supper was ready. Sergeant Deer called everyone to the fire. Even the Prince sort of joined them. At least he moved closer and Sarah made sure he was fed. Most only gave him a curious glance, though some of the Scouts did nod their respect. Strange to think someone wouldn’t know what their Prince looked like. Then again, they didn’t have TV.
Sarah sat, flanked by Adam and Reed, to eat. The Prince had maneuvered to sit almost across from her, just behind and to one side of Sergeant Deer. Silence fell over the group as they devoured the food. When the first person reached for seconds, Sergeant Deer spoke.
“As my Scouts know, and some of you Hopefuls are aware, we’re aborting the Trials.” A couple gasps were heard. “But before we get to that I want to know what everyone found out there. We’ll start with Hopeful Reed and then work our way to Hopeful Smith.”
It turned out that only Reed had anything to report. The other four teams hadn’t seen much. A few potential trails, but no camps. Deer nodded, but made no comment after any of them. At last he turned to Sarah and Adam.
“Smith,” Deer nodded to her.
Sarah slowly stood as everyone turned their attention to her. She looked into the fire which was nearly out. She took a deep breath and began to speak.
“Nothing of note happened until about the end of our second day out.” As she told them about the bear cub, noises of disgust ran around the circle. “So we decided to follow the trail backwards to see if we could find out who had maimed the cub.”
“Damn right someone who does that should be brought to justice,” a Scout muttered.
“That was our hope,” Sarah told the scout befroe she returned to her report. “By the middle of that day we stumbled into the remains of a large enemy camp.”
“There are Nobles who hunt in these woods, someone,”
“I wish, but no,” Sarah cut off the speaker, “this camp belonged to General Wholawski.” Her statement was met with disbelief, but she continued. “The ground was littered with dead tortured squirrels. Not to mention the camp the layout was exactly the same as the camp Phoenix asked me to infiltrate. There is no doubt in my mind that General Wholawski was there. The burning Willow only confirmed it.”
“Impossible!” Nick stood, looking at Sarah with wide eyes. “There is no way anyone could set fire to a Willow tree. I don’t care how Godless they say he is.”
Sergeant Deer held up his hand and Nick slowly subsided.
“Adam, you were there.” Sergeant Deer looked to his Scout.
Adam slowly raised his head from where it lay in his hands. Sarah could plainly see the tears that wet his cheeks. “It was a Willow Nick,” he said, “and beneath its hacked bows lay the bones of a child.”
Stunned silence spread over the group and Sarah sat down. Looking across and past Sergeant Deer, she noted that even the Prince looked shocked and appalled. A squirrel scolded from above. Release by that sound, Scouts and Hopefuls broke into conversations as they tried to figure out why and how and when.
“Smith,” Sarah looked up to see the Prince standing before her.
“Yes Your Highness?” she watched as he tried to keep emotion from his expression.
“A word with you alone.”
Sarah stood and followed the Prince back to the tent. He stood for sometime facing away from her.
“Do you think General Wholawski broke the damn?” he did not face her.
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” she stated.
“The river, it nearly killed me that day.” He turned to face her. “Did you goad my father into putting me in these trials so General Wholawski could kill me? Is that why I am here with you now? Are you a tra...”
“NO!” Sarah glared at the Prince. “I am on one side and one side only and you ought to be glad it’s yours because I’ve had it up to here, "she gestured at her neck," with your attitude.” Sarah stared inot the Prince's eyes. “General Wholawski is in the woods and from what I understand he has your sister. And he is probably out to kill you and your father. So you best take protection from these men and not complain about it.”
Sarah spun on her heel only to spin back. “Your Highness,” and with that she left to camouflage the fire pit.
“Smith!” someone called her name.
“Yeah?” Sarah looked back towards the tent which was being taken down.
“You don’t mind carrying a tent pole or two do you?” a scout asked.
“Not at all,” Sarah stated before returning to her own task.