Sim noticed the next occurrence, as they passed through the rocky hills of Bor-Takan. He had kept a sharp outlook along the way, knowing that the wildmen were out there somewhere. He felt fairly confident that they wouldn’t dare attack so massive an army, but he was still a little nervous about seeing them again.
His watchful eyes caught them soon enough. Just after dawn on their second day in the hills, he thought something was moving up in the rocks on the slopes above them. He looked up quickly, but all he saw were craggy boulders and scrubby plants. But then, a few minutes later, the same sensation: a hint of motion at the edges of his sight, and the unmistakable sense that someone was watching them. He looked up again, and this time he was sure he noticed a quick black flash as a shadowy figure slipped behind a gnarled, barren tree.
“There’s someone up there,” he announced, and Mack and Kobi cast their glances up onto the hillside.
“Wildmen, no doubt,” Mack growled. “Better for them if they hide.”
“I certainly don’t care to see them again,” Kobi agreed.
But then Prince Halbrinnon stopped in his tracks. He raised an arm, and the column behind him halted as well. As the dust from their march thickened the air all around them, they watched and they listened for any more sounds from the slopes above.
“Come out!” Halbrinnon commanded in a loud voice. Then the children heard him say something else, in the exact same tone and inflection, and they knew he must be speaking in the language of the wildmen.
For a moment, there was nothing. Then slowly, hesitantly, a single, tattered figure emerged from behind a boulder. It slid and scrabbled haltingly down the hillside until it came to stand, hunched over, in a cloud of dust before the prince.
Then another one appeared, from closer by—so close that it startled the children—and then another and another, coming out from behind rocks and trees all over the slopes. When the haze of their descent had lifted a bit, the children could see more than thirty of the wildmen gathered there, standing in a ragged assembly before the prince. They were raw-boned and muscular, and their eyes shifted untrustingly between the royal leader and his vast company.
The prince spoke out again, but this time his voice was not as loud nor as fierce as his earlier command. The wildmen tilted their heads, listening. His words filled the clearing air, and the dust settled as the sound of his voice rolled over it. From his lips the wildmen’s language, which before had seemed a rustic, backward thing, suddenly took on a grace and power it had never borne before. The syllables danced with the lightness of sunshine on the high hills, and when the words dipped down into the rougher, lower registers they became not echoes of savagery, but of strength and dignity.
The wildmen watched him closely, their gazes fixed on him alone now. Then, hesitantly at first, the ones in front began to kneel. One after another dropped to their knees, their heads bowed in humble respect.
Then Halbrinnon laughed. Not the laugh of a victor over the vanquished, but the laugh of an old friend filled with delight at finding his long-lost companions. The wildmen smiled—an expression the children never expected to see on those faces, but which fit them surprisingly well—and then began to laugh too. At the prince’s invitation, in answer to his beckoning arms, the wildmen stood up. They were standing straighter now, hunched no more, and then turned so that the column could continue its march.
“They will come with us,” said the prince.
“Them, my lord?” Kobi asked. “Can we trust them?”
Halbrinnon looked at the captain of the guard, a smile at the corners of his mouth. “The question is, do you trust me?”
“Always, my lord.”
“Then believe me when I say: they are with us now.”
Kobi bowed his head in submission, and the march went on. The wildmen fell into step with the rest of the army, just behind Prince Halbrinnon and the rest of the leaders. Even when they came to the edge of the hills and passed under the great, spreading boughs of the old forest, the wildmen marched in stride with the rest.
On and on the company went, down the ancient road running east to Arrens. Every now and then they saw signs of the Steward’s hold on the land—a troop of guards here or there that took flight quickly upon spying the army—but for the most part they were walking amid the wilderness. And with every step they took, it became ever clearer that the wilderness knew who the true king was.
Joe kept a lookout for wolves as they walked; he remembered with painful poignancy the night they endured the wolf-pack’s assault. He kept one hand on the hilt of the dagger that Sir Mack had given him that night.
Sure enough, as dusk began to settle over the quiet woods, a single, lingering howl carried through the trees. Then Joe saw one gray flash, then another, on both sides of the roadway. The wolves had found them.
He was about to pull out his dagger when he heard the prince’s voice: “Don’t be afraid.”
They kept walking, and Joe kept spotting more and more gray shadows darting through the bracken alongside. But the more that he watched them, the more he came to realize that the wolves weren’t threatening them. They weren’t howling, weren’t making feints and snapping as they had done on their first meeting. They were jogging alongside, quietly and stealthily, as was their wont, but they were simply paralleling the road. The longer Joe watched them, the more it seemed to him that the wolves were accompanying their march, almost as if they too had made the decision to join the prince’s army.
That night, as they camped in the fringes of the forest, just beyond the plains of Arrens, the stillness of the woods covered them like a blanket. And forming a faithful guard on every side, looking outward with watchful eyes, were the wolves of the ancient West-wood.