They kept walking all throughout that day, and gradually the shadows in the wood lengthened until they became a silent darkness all around them. The children’s legs were stiff and sore, but they spoke no word of complaint. They were squires now, and they knew that good squires bore hardships bravely. And they always kept before them the hope that out there, perhaps just around the next turn of the trail, would be Prince Halbrinnon, their future king.
Sir Mack took a small torch out of his leather satchel and lit it with a flint. The bright orange blaze filled the area around them with dancing waves of light. It was a comfort to see the beautiful flame, but it made the darkness further in the woods seem even darker yet. Every now and then the children could catch a glimpse of a bright, star-bejeweled sky above the canopy of the trees, and it made them wish they could be out in the open again. Forests in the daylight were places of wonder and delight, but in the darkness they were terrifying.
“Well, perhaps we should stop and make camp for the night,” said Mack. “I had hoped that we might catch up to the prince today, but it looks like he had too much of a head start on us. We’ll keep going at the first light of morning.”
Joe looked around with a cautious eye. “Is it safe here?”
“No, not really,” Mack chuckled. “This deep in the forest, we’re in lawless territory. But we’re knights and squires of the king, remember? We’ll be all right.”
Joe, Sim, and Lady helped Mack gather armfuls of sticks and brush, which they brought back to the center of the trail and arranged into a pile. Mack was just bending down to light them into a campfire when a startling sound broke out of the darkness close by: the high, plaintive howl of a wolf. The children all drew a collective breath of horror and surprise, but Mack simply looked up into the darkness and smiled grimly.
“Don’t worry. I’ve traveled the forest road many times. They always try to harass me, but these wolves aren’t big enough to threaten a knight.”
“But I’m not as big as a knight!” Lady whimpered. “What will they do to me?”
“Hmm,” murmured Mack. “You probably do look pretty appealing to them, little one. But don’t let yourself get scared: wolves know how to use fear to their advantage. The worst thing you can do is get so frightened that you run. They’re experts at bringing down prey on the run.”
“What, then?” asked Joe. “We just stand here?”
“Yes. Here, Joe, you’re the biggest, so you take my dagger and get ready to use it if you have to. I’ll have the sword. Lady, here’s my shield. Start pounding on it and shout as loud as you can. Sim, you too—here, take my staff, and make some noise. I’ll get the fire going. Sometimes a good fire is enough to keep them at bay all on its own.”
Mack knelt down to tend to the little blaze, but despite his calm self-assurance, the children were shaken. Nonetheless, they obeyed. Joe kept a sharp outlook on the dark shadows beyond their fire’s ring of light, the dagger held at ready. Lady smashed at Mack’s shield over and over again, until her drumming filled the night air with the somber clangs of a battlefield. Sim rapped the long staff against nearby tree trunks, shouting at the top of his lungs for any wolves to stay well away.
Just a few moments after Mack had finished coaxing the fire to life, however, they saw the first flash of gray shadows and the haunting, dull eye-shine of the wolves watching them. Joe, who was always keen on counting things up, did a quick survey of the circle.
“I see ten of them, I think. No, eleven! Twelve!”
“There are more yet to come,” said Mack. “I can hear other howls further off.”
The wolves were becoming bolder, dancing closer and closer to the ring of light. After a few minutes, they didn’t have to look for eye-shine to count wolves in the darkness; they were all fully visible, circling just out of reach, occasionally feinting in from one side before snapping for an opportunity on the other side. They were watching the children with careful eyes, their ears folded back against the cacophony that Lady and Sim were making.
Once, one came close enough to Sim to nip within a hair’s-breadth of his leg, but Mack caught the wolf mid-motion and brought his war-sword crashing down on the beast’s back. It collapsed without even a whimper and lay there dead, but its fellow stalkers did not seem to care. They kept up their relentless pressure, snapping and feinting at the circle of defenders, looking for an opening.
Just then, in the middle of this tense standoff, another sound reached their ears: a drumming that began as a light, staccato echo that they could just make out between the beats of Lady’s pounding. Soon it grew louder and clearer, until it was unmistakable. It was the sound of a horse tearing down the road, its hoofs slamming against the dirt pathway with earth-shattering speed.
“Keep your guard up,” Mack commanded. “Don’t let the wolves see you looking away.”
“But who is it?” asked Sim. “Who’s coming?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps more guards sent by the steward.”
Immediately, the children’s minds raced back to the danger they had faced earlier, when they had escaped a troop of soldiers by fording the flooded river. With the wolves all around them and another enemy bearing down at breakneck speed, it seemed as if the forest had nothing but malice for them that night.
They only had a moment to think about such things, though, because the thunder of the horse’s hoofs burst suddenly out upon them in physical form: a great bay stallion, with a black-cloaked rider atop it. The rider had a green shield and a long, slender sword that cut vast, silvery arcs through the air. In the glowing light of their campfire, he looked like the reaper of souls, come to finish the wolves’ work.
But instead, the rider drove his horse into the ring of wolves, scattering them like mist. His sword whistled down sharply on one of the beasts, then another, and they whimpered and dove out of the way. Round and round he rode, making a tight circle around the campfire and its four defenders, until finally all of the wolves had vanished into the woods like a nightmare exposed to the light of day. Then, and only then, he drew in his reins, let his snorting, lathering mount stand at rest, and turned to look at Sir Mack and the children.
“Who are you?” asked Sim, with a touch of wonder in his voice.
The dark rider cast back his hood, revealing a young, handsome face with a wild crop of black hair.
“Sir Kobi!” Mack exclaimed. “We were afraid it was one of the steward’s guards, sent to bring us back.”
“Not so,” said the rider. “And it seems I’ve come just in time. You pay me the great honor of letting me dispense with these wild beasts. Nothing can stand against the defenders of the royal house of Arrens!”
“Children,” said Mack, “allow me to introduce Sir Kobi, the Captain of the Royal Guard. Kobi, this is Joe, Sim, and Lady—they saw Prince Halbrinnon leave the city before the steward reported his death.”
“Yes, so I’ve heard,” said Kobi, dismounting to stand before the children. “Indeed, that’s why I’m here.”
“You’re not here to take us back, are you?” asked Joe.
“Far from it! I’m no servant of Steward Presten. As Captain of the Royal Guard, I serve the prince, and him only. And if he’s alive, as you say, then I must be a part of the quest to find him. Would you permit me to join your noble company?”
The three children looked at each other. Sim smiled and nodded to Joe, who turned and looked at Sir Mack.
“What do you think?”
Mack grinned. “If such a man as this is on our side, then we have great things to hope for.”
“Nay, say it not like that,” said Kobi with a matching smile. “Say rather that one brave heart comes late to the battle, to join four hearts more valiant still.”
Joe chuckled and extended his hand. “I guess you can join us, then!”