The next day came in with a sweltering wave of heat. Although only a few patches of sunshine reached them down on the forest floor, the temperatures nonetheless ascended steadily throughout the morning, together with a stifling wall of humidity. It sometimes felt as though they were trekking through the misty spray of a boiling waterfall, so hot and thick was the moisture in the air.
The travelers moved along slowly. Kobi had his horse, but rather than ride it himself, he allowed each of the children to take turns atop the mount. Sir Mack kept a vigilant watch on the trail ahead from his position at the front, and the other four followed close behind. They didn’t talk much, except for an exclamation now and then upon finding a footprint and conjecturing as to whether they were drawing near to the prince, whom they still believed to be somewhere on the road ahead of them.
Gradually, the trees of the forest began to grow smaller and farther apart, until by late afternoon they found themselves in a brushy, stubby wood barely as high as Mack’s head. Scattered boulders gave an ancient and rugged look to this scrub-brush section of forest, and the road wove back and forth through ever more rocky ravines. When they finally stopped to take an evening meal, Mack exchanged a telling glance with Kobi and then turned to the children.
“We’re coming into dangerous territory here,” he said with calm clarity.
“How dangerous?” asked Sim.
“Well…I guess I would say that it’s not an area that anyone travels through alone.”
“But Prince Hal would have come this way!” said Lady.
“Yes, and he may have made it through without danger. But there’s only one way to be sure of that, and it requires us to face the danger head-on.”
“What do you mean?” asked Joe.
Kobi took over at this point. “These valleys are home to a violent group of hunters known as the Wildmen of Bor-Takan.”
“Is that what they call themselves?” asked Joe. “Because that doesn’t sound like a real name.”
Kobi laughed, and Mack shook his head. “I guess you’re right,” said Kobi. “I don’t know what they call themselves; that’s just the name that everyone else calls them, mostly because they’re dangerous, and we don’t understand them very well.”
“But a few of them can speak a little of the Common Tongue,” Mack explained. “So I think Sir Kobi and I will try to make contact with them. They’re the only ones who would know if the prince passed this way. And if they attacked or captured him, we would definitely need to find that out.”
“So you’re going to go talk to them?” Sim asked nervously.
“Yes,” said Mack. “You see that smoke, rising from just over the next ridge? That’s likely to be one of their cookout fires. We’ll follow the road up onto that ridge, and then I’ll have you children find a hiding-spot. We don’t want the wildmen to know that you’re with us. Sir Kobi and I will then go out in our full armor and try to talk to them.”
“Isn’t it dangerous?” asked Lady.
“Yes, a little. But we’re both knights in full armor. I think that may intimidate them.”
The three children nodded their understanding of the plan, and after the knights had shared some waybread with them, they set off again.
The road wound down into a deep ravine and then began a steep ascent up the side of the ridge. The sun was setting before them, lighting the entire horizon in fantastic shades of orange and purple and rose. Then, in the dimness of a shallow hollow in front of them, they saw the dancing flames of a bonfire, with a steady stream of hazy smoke rising from it and then settling in a fog between the ridges. Around that fire the dark shapes of the wildmen paced back and forth, busy with their work of roasting the day’s kill.
“Now, over to those rocks there,” Kobi whispered to the children. “And here, take my horse with you. I don’t want the wildmen to see it and think that we’re offering them a meal.”
So Joe, Sim, and Lady obediently walked off the side of the road and picked their way through the stony landscape. Kobi’s stallion, as well-trained a war-horse as there was in the kingdom, followed quietly behind, responding to every gentle tug that Joe gave to its reins. Its hoofs clicked softly against the rocks, but other than that it made no sound. After about a hundred paces, they came to a set of boulders large enough to hide behind.
Mack and Kobi waited until they were safely tucked away in the shadow of the rocks, and then they turned their attention back to the wildmen’s bonfire. From their safe viewpoint, the three children peeked out through a crevice in the stone. They could see the firelight gleam dimly off the two knights’ armor as they approached the scene, could see the straight and fearless way they walked.
“Oh, I hope they’re okay,” Lady whispered with fervent worry in her voice.
“I don’t think anything can hurt those two,” said Sim in an effort to reassure her.
“Besides, it’s just a simple question,” said Joe. “They just need to find out if the prince has passed this way, and if he did, to make sure he got through the wildmen’s territory safely.”
They fell into silence as the scene played out before them in the gathering gloom. It was hard to see any features clearly against the glow of the fire, but they could easily differentiate the silhouettes of Mack and Kobi from the stooping, muscular forms of the wildmen. The knights had stopped their progress and were holding their hands up in a display of good faith, even while their swords remained clearly visible at their sides.
Snatches of shouted conversation drifted up to the children. At first it seemed like the men’s voices carried a note of calm confidence, but after a minute or two a tenor of warning had crept in. The wildmen’s responses, for all the children could discern, were nothing but a series of angry growls and cries.
Then, in a flurry of motion, the band of wildmen charged at Kobi and Mack from both sides. The children saw a quick flash of a sword blade for a moment, but then everything faded into one black mass as the wildmen wrestled with the knights before the leaping flames.
“No,” Lady gasped.
“Come on, Mack,” Sim urged quietly. “Come on, Kobi.”
The wrestling continued, with furious shouts and howls of pain flooding the dusky ravine. And then, just a minute or two after it had begun, the movement faded down into stillness.
“What happened?” Sim asked, squinting against the light of the bonfire.
“I don’t know,” said Joe. “I…I think I see Mack. Yes, and there’s Kobi. They’re not dead, I don’t think. They’re sitting up.”
“Look!” Sim said, just a little too loudly. Joe put a hand on his shoulder to restrain him. “Look there,” he went on, a little more quietly. “At the wildmen behind them! They’re tying up Mack and Kobi!”
Just as he said, it soon became clear that the wildmen had prevailed in the fight, and that the children’s two protectors had been captured. The assault had come just a little too quickly, while Mack and Kobi were still trying to prove their good intentions. They hadn’t been able to draw their weapons quickly enough for it to make any difference. The sheer numbers of the band of wildmen had overcome them, and now they were being bound hand and foot.
And there, out in the darkness, the three young children sat alone.