They were a quiet band of men as they followed the tributaries of the Silver River to the east. For the first few hours of the long gray dawn, the forest was silent. No sign of animal life revealed itself, save the mocking cry from a bird in the trees far above.
The lack of wildlife along the river was a mystery to the hunters. Had they the time, they might have looked about more carefully for animals. However, given the season and the weather, they simply had to accept the situation and move forward.
Ironically, the break in snow did not deter creatures of the two-legged variety from emerging from the comfort of their homes to look for food. As the sun began to straggle south along the horizon, the hunters found a man fishing on top of the iced-over river. They dipped into the trees to avoid him and others of that type. The hunters knew there was not a lot of fish in the waters this time of year; what these men might catch was not worthy of trade.
But not all people could be avoided. At times, a break from the cold would be required. The shelters they expected to find unoccupied were filled with noisy parties. They had no choice but to share at least one with such a group of men, merrily warming themselves by several fires.
The travelers’ clothing and carefree ways marked them as townsfolk from Crossroads. Wilhelm’s men were not exactly keen to loiter with them, but temporary protection from the elements was a necessity. As the men mingled with one another by the heat of the campfires, the guild men took care to politely decline the alcohol being passed around. They listened gravely as their leader offered a few “helpful” comments regarding good hunting spots to the west. In such matters Guildleader Caderyn proved himself an adept politician who knew how to serve the guild’s interest with carefully woven tales that charmed the audience while disclosing nothing of great importance.
The party of Crossroads men was a careless bunch. Beer loosened their tongues and they spoke too freely of town affairs. By their accounts, Winchester was withering while Crossroads swelled with a rush of new residents. Many a traveler had begun to pour in from outlying regions, anxious about the darkening winter and the moon in the sky. Trade was flourishing as was the demand for meat and foodstuff.
Wilhelm’s eyes glimmered faintly with contempt for these men. He did not mind their boasts about the money they would make off the town’s new residents. Greed was to be expected with an influx of new trade. It was their self-declared prowess for hunting that disgusted him. He knew they would not be successful. But just the same, he wished them luck as his men left the merry fools behind.
As the sun moved higher in the sky, the Winchester hunters disappeared into the tree line to avoid the stray ice fishermen and hunters that were roaming the area. They could not stay there long once the sun quickly changed its mind.
Twilight came without much warning. But the hunters did not use torches or lanterns to light their way back to the rocky shorelines of the river. The guild did not want to be so easily noticed.
However, the snow refused to cooperate. As carefully as they moved, their weight crunched the white powder underneath them as they moved single file through the forest.
When they came close to the tree line near the river, they found their steps had betrayed them. A large group of ragged, disreputable looking travelers stepped in front of and behind them.
The hunters circled around their leader as they found themselves surrounded. A nervous energy ran through them as fingers reached for weapons. The guildmaster held up a warning hand while his eyes darted about, evaluating the situation.
As usual, he was an outward picture of calm. Unlike other men, he did not panic. But today, he cursed inwardly as he counted several dozen of these wild and shaggy men — bundled up in a mess of furs and leather from head to toe. They were all equipped with sheathed blades and with eyes that were equally sharp and dangerous.
“Why do you lurk in the trees,” came the demand from the tallest among them, a man whose voice grated at their ears. “We have been wondering at your haphazard path.”
The guildmaster’s eyes narrowed, realizing that this ragged group had been waiting for them. Somehow they had used the deepening shadows and their unusual gear to camouflage their movements as they circled around them and cut off their further progression eastwards. The guild leader decided to not shade the truth. “Been avoiding all the other travelers as we are anxious to avoid delays with idle chitchat and don’t have resources to share. I assure you we wish for nothing more than to be quickly out of your way and on our own way home. We hunters mean no trouble.”
The wild men’s leader light-colored eyes flickered between Wilhelm and his men, perhaps weighing out the likely truth of his response. He blinked twice before turning his head to the side to address a second equally grim man near him. When their whispered conference concluded, the feral man grinned sharply. “We are only a band of traveling minstrels resting on our own journey and are simply curious. How fares the hunting, hunters?”
“Plenty of deer to be had.” Wilhelm spoke neutrally while eyeing his counterpart. That disheveled, dark-haired man did not look like or have the sound of a minstrel. Nor did any of the several dozen so-called minstrels surrounding them appear to have an instrument in hand. “In fact, there is more than enough for all those looking to fill their stores,” he emphasized.
The man’s gaze hungrily wandered to the bags they carried. “So I can tell. And what of bears and wolves?”
The guildmaster spoke carefully. “We only hunt game to feed our families. We do not look for pelts. It is rare to find those sorts of creatures as there is little to entice them here. I’ve heard that they may be found another half-day’s journey west from here.”
“I see,” the leader sounded amused. “Good information if we were hunters, but we are simply minstrels looking for a town full of people and with plenty of food and shelter.”
“Then Crossroads is your place,” Wilhelm affected cheer. “Lots of drink and men with gold. They trade in everything one might want, including meat and other foodstuff. It isn’t far from here, just a few more hours east-southeast.”
The lead minstrel nodded. “We would reward you handsomely for guiding us there. We have several families amongst us, some with young children. We cannot afford to wander about haplessly. ”
Wilhelm’s eyes wandered beyond the immediate circle of men to verify his words. As he saw faces peering out from the safety of the woods beyond, he came to realize why this vagabond group had encircled them. They had headed his men off as a means of protecting themselves against strangers who might as well as been a dangerous band of thieves! “Look,” Wilhelm sighed. “We don’t travel that way. We will pass north of that place. And my men and I cannot wait until tomorrow to continue east.”
The man drew himself up as he continued to firmly press the matter. “We propose that we travel in the darkness with you. We will not burden you. We are quick-footed and carry our own provisions. The woods are dangerous as it gets dark. If anything, our numbers will help you.”
Wilhelm and his men exchanged glances at this almost rude insistence on part of this stranger. “If you would allow my men and I to have a moment then.”
The grey-eyed man nodded and the circle of men around them vanished, reforming at a more respectable distance from the hunters.
The guild hunters pressed at their leader’s side, their faces puzzled and anxious. “What was that about?” his men wondered quietly. “Are they really minstrels? Is this a trap of some sort?”
Wilhelm gave the men who asked those questions a rather irritated look. Their furs and the knives they carried at their sides clearly indicated the minstrels were not what they said they were! “There is little choice being given to us here, men. We must accept their request, so I ask you simply to keep your wits around you. If approached, do not accept anything from them, even food or drink. Do not give them reason to put you in their debt. And make sure to tell them of our neighbors down south in glowing detail.”
He could not say more, for the tall man reappeared without warning a few feet away, signaling their time for deliberation was over.
The minstrel spoke. “Our families have agreed. We will walk with you in the darkness. But before we begin, we must ask again. What is your cost, huntsmen? Men like you often require a guide’s fee.”
“None,” the guildmaster responded firmly, cautious not to enter any semblance of a deal. “We will walk along the river as a group. Keep those likely to straggle in the middle and put some of your stronger men in the back. Hurry along while we have a bit of light.”
The man nodded before he barked a few orders at the men beside him. True to their leader’s promise, the minstrels broke camp silently and efficiently.
And so it came to pass that the hunters resumed their journey east along the rocky shores of the river, shadowed by the minstrels