As excited as he was, Maximilian found it difficult to say goodbye to his family. It was just before dawn, and yet his grandfather was in exceptionally lively form, dancing about and waving his staff at any nearby elf that was foolish enough to get within his reach. His parents, however, were a somber and nervous presence at the large sendoff gathering near the elven settlement.
He had packed as light as he could manage, leaving room for his grandfather’s letters to the fabled Queen (should he find her) at the bottom of his pack. At his side, he had fastened the short sword given to him by his father — the sword Philip Wolfram had carried long ago to protect the woman he would make his wife.
When the first hint of sun trickled through the forest canopy, the troupe leader — a large, tall elf by name of Toryn — signaled. Recognizing it was time for the party to leave, Maximilian’s parents enveloped him in an uncharacteristically long embrace.
“Good heavens, you two,” the Count shook his head. “Remember who we are.”
Maximilian’s father knew the Count well enough to pay him no heed. (The old man pretended to be unemotional but was just as sentimental a fool as the rest of them.) “I’m sorry I am not going with you,” he said before he released his son.
“It’s alright, father,” the young man answered. He knew his father could not go, for long ago he had promised not to step foot into the lands west of the Silver River.
As for his mother, she raised her hand and rested it lightly upon his face. Although she said nothing, her eyes shone with worry. When Eirwen Wolfram stepped back, the Count was waiting.
Somewhat impatiently, he took something from his sleeve. With a bit of haste, he untangled a silver cord which he then placed around his grandson’s neck. As the Count dropped the necklace in place, Maximilian felt an unexpected heaviness. But the feeling of heaviness passed quickly, and he forgot about it altogether.
The Count’s silver eyes glinted. “Your father has given you his sword, his treasure. And now I give you mine.” Maximilian’s fingers drifted down to touch the blue stone that dangled at one end of the silver chain. In a low voice, the Count continued. “It may not look like much, but it has served me well on many a dark night.”
“What is it?” Maximilian and his parents looked back at the Count, mystified.
It is a remnant from the past,” the man looked pleased. “Some say it’s a piece of an eye from a monster-sized wolf. But a jeweler in Capestown told me that it’s simply a pretty stone found in these parts. What he didn’t know,” the old man chuckled, “was that for the right users, it somehow can re-channel the light of daytime.”
“How? Is it magic?”
“Yes, no, maybe so,” his grandfather swung his cane about playfully. “You’ll have to ask the Queen that question, I’m afraid. I have no answers for you, only that it will work when it needs to. Now hurry–” he swung out his cane in order to poke his grandson. “That leader of yours will leave without you if we keep dawdling here.”
Maximilian dodged, moving to a safer distance out of his grandfather’s reach.
“Be well!” The eldest Wolfram called after him with a grin.
The young man turned briefly to wave, all too aware that the troupe was filing out. As he ran to catch up with his traveling companions, three pairs of eyes followed his progress until they could see him no more.
* * *
There were twenty-eight persons in the troupe in total. It was too large a group to walk single file through the trails. Per their ranger leader’s orders, they traveled in several groups, forming parallel lines as they walked through the forest.
Maximilian trod softly along a small dirt path that was marked well enough for someone who knew what to look for. He followed after the two twins, Delamari and Delmarin. They, in turn, were trailing Eldnar, a grimmer and more trim version of the burly Ridnar. Ahead of them walked Toryn, who was a picture of utter watchfulness as they moved about the trails.
There was still sunlight here, for the forest hereabouts had been thinned. Elves to the west and east had taken timber to build their settlements hundreds of years prior. Therefore the trees were younger than and not as tall as the older ones to the west. The sound and sights of animals were rare; the lack of water meant game often passed through but did not linger.
On occasion, the men still found unexplainable green and inviting spaces – glens full of flowers and patches of berries. These were places to pause in order to rest and eat. Wood Elves, while pragmatic, knew enough to enjoy what beauty and quiet they could discover in the forest. They knew this sort of terrain would not last long.
The first few days were much like this, full of quiet conversations as they walked through gently shaded woods. As they advanced further, the trees began to grow taller, the ground began to slope higher, and the sun became more elusive.
Their ranger leader had them shift tactics then – sending the older rangers ahead to read the trails and reducing the numbers of groups. They formed two single lines as they moved through the thickening woods, reducing their chances of losing one another and growing the size of each group. The expansion of each individual subparty was a subtle and necessary display of strength against the unknown elements in the woods.
Moving westwards, the air began to turn colder at night. Fortunately, it did not rain, for they not only needed a fire to keep warm, but to also keep away the creatures that had begun to follow them from a distance. The elves could hear the soft footfalls coming near their camp.
This continued for several nights, and the older elves said nothing. It was the talk of the younger elves, however, as they stopped for camp each night.
“The scouts say the things following us are wolves,” Ridnar spoke up while eating his bit of bread and preserved meat. “Fortunately for us, they’re well-fed right now. So they’re just following us out of curiosity.”
“There are not as many travelers in this area as there used to be,” Eldnar did not look up from the piece of wood he was whittling. “It is no wonder that they would be tracking us, trying to determine our business.”
Maximilian looked up from his own modest meal, thinking. “You both say these things as if the wolves’ motives in doing so are comprehensible.”
Eldnar turned his nose up at him and his brother. “Indeed, if a group of people were traveling through your domain, wouldn’t you make it a point to observe them?”
Maximilian’s lips quirked up into a bit of a smile, reminded of his rather eccentric set of uncles. “Perhaps — but not exactly in the same way. I think my uncles would have grown rather impatient with the idea of carefully observing from afar. They’d have likely strode right into this very circle, demanding an explanation.”
Ridnar chuckled, understanding. He was old enough to remember them in great detail. “And having accepted it, demand that we share our drink with them and sing them some rather dreadful songs.”
The three of them laughed for a moment.
“They were rather fond of wolves,” Maximilian poked at the fire with a stick, while thinking about them. “Perhaps more so than humans.”
“Well, in that way they are very much like many elves,” Eldnar coughed. “Although I suppose our minstrels aren’t too fond of wolves. In most of their songs they exhort the fox, a rather clever creature.”
“Feh,” Ridnar looked irritated. “The minstrel elves just do that to please the fire elves who pay much more handsomely for their songs. It’s all a conspiracy, I tell you.”
“What nonsense are you two spouting,” Toryn came over and gave Ridnar and Eldnar a rather suspicious glance. “Don’t tell me you’re filling Wolfram’s head with your ridiculous prattling about things that you do not know for yourselves.”
“Ah,” Ridnar grumbled. “We are just sharing a bit of lore with the cub here. There’s no harm done.”
“Filling his head with nonsense is not what a Wood elf does,” Toryn shook his head. “Fire elves have nothing to do with us at the moment.”
“Then what do you say about the wolves? Are they what are following us?”
“Yes- what of these wolves, leader?” the brothers grinned as they echoed Maximilian’s question.
Toryn sighed. For a long moment, he looked out past the periphery. “The scouts said they are definitely wolves. A pack of about seven or eight has been following for some time. At night they seem to fan out, moving away from camp, not towards us. It doesn’t appear that they’re interested in hunting us.”
“Then exactly what are they doing?” Ridnar spoke up, reflecting their confusion over the matter.
Toryn shook his head at the younger men. “Did it not occur to you that they may not be watching us, but over us?”
At that statement, the three younger members of the troupe found themselves silenced.