(Read the first part of this adventure here.)
The sun plays in and out of the forest above onto the pathway as you walk. Compared to the evening you were ambushed, it’s a quite place, peaceful. Birds chirp and a squirrel chatters loudly as you get too close to his tree.
Beside you the wizard walks with surprisingly soft steps for his size. His large hands stay stuffed into the pockets of his robe and his eyes stay fixed on the road, on the sides of the path, and the forest surrounding you, like he’s just waiting for something to go awry.
In the inn he looked like a large man. Now, walking beside him in Mirrorland Forest, he’s a giant. Several times as you walk he ducks to avoid hanging branches from the trees. No wonder whoever took the dowry made sure he never even met up with it.
He introduced himself as Wizard Ezekiel. You wonder if calling him Zek would be an offense.
“The transport was ambushed just ahead,” you say and point up the road to a spot where several large boulders encroach on the path.
“What do you remember?” he asks in his rumbling deep voice.
“Shouts,” you answer. “I was the rear guard. When I heard the others shouting, I rushed to join them. Someone caught me there,” you point to an oak tree that overhangs the road, “from above. Dropped on top of me and, the next thing I knew, I was being woken by the King’s men who were sent to find the transport when it didn’t show up on time. Rather un-heroic moment for me.”
Wizard Ezekiel doesn’t respond to your last admission. He walks underneath the oak and stares up into its heavy branches.
“Piece of hair,” he holds out his hand.
“I need a piece of your hair.” He snaps his fingers. It startles the birds into silence for a moment.
You hesitate. “No toads,” you remind him.
He snorts and shakes the large hand he’s holding toward you. With a resigned sigh, you pull a strand of hair and give it over.
“This isn’t enough to turn you into an amphibian anyway,” he gives a devious half grin as he twirls the single strand between his fingers. Chuckling at your consternation, he turns away and places the hair onto his large palm. He holds it up toward the tree’s overhanging branches and gently blows the strand into the leaves.
Just like that, you’re looking at a hazy image of yourself running down the road. In the oak sits a cloaked figure. With the cloak and his absolute stillness, he blends almost perfectly into the leaves of the tree. It’s only his hazy outline and the fact you know he’s there that you spot him.
You and the wizard walk around until you can see the figure’s face.
“We know him,” you say in shock.
“Hmm,” Wizard Ezekiel agrees.
The innkeeper’s face is lined and focused but his usual friendly smile is not in evidence. Instead, he’s staring at your running figure with consternation and a kind of guilty realization.
“I think you’re alive because he knows you,” the wizard says. “I’m starting to think you were not supposed to live.”
“What’s that?” you point to a piece of paper sticking out of his breast pocket.
With gentle fingers, Wizard Ezekiel pulls the phantom paper free and unfolds it like it’s made from brittle bark.
“Contract.” He tilts the yellowed page for you to see. Orange stains pock mark the paper, making you think of the man’s cider.
“For the dowry—” you trail off as you read the rest, “and two other jobs.”
“One of which happens tonight when the princess leaves for her wedding,” Wizard Ezekiel points to the date.
The hazy memory image dissipates like smoke.
“This,” the wizard gestures at the tree where the image just stood, “is not enough to convince the King of the man’s guilt. He does not trust magic evidence. We need something more.”
“We could ambush the ambushers tonight?” you suggest.
“Or let the princess’ guards know about the ambush,” Wizard Ezekiel offers back.
You shake your head. “Both of us are under suspicion from the first job. The guards are not likely to trust us. We might be able to get the innkeeper to turn to our side if we confront him.”
Wizard Ezekiel shrugs. “You’re better with people. Which option do you fancy?”
Aa. Ambush the Ambushers?
Ab. Confront Innkeeper?
Let me know in the comments which option catches your fancy. Next Thursday, we’ll see what happens next.
Until then, blessings,