The jungle rose tall and thick before them. The foliage had been thickening gradually over the past several days, but now the caravan came across its first true jungle woods. Thick, black-barked trunks stood with sweeping buttresses, dappled green with leaves and vines. Very little light reached the floor of the jungle through the wide arms of the canopy. Bamboo, shrubs, and rocks filled in the space instead. The caravan crept to a stop at the forest’s edge.
There were several horses, each one carrying a man with leather armor, a short sword, and a crossbow. There were a few wagons, drawn by an ox each, and several people rode on them. One group of people, dressed in fine clothes, took up seats over two of the wagons. A woman had a shawl around her head and shoulders, protecting herself from pesky bugs. At the front of the caravan, a man raised his hand as he reined his horse to a halt. It nickered softly and shuffled.
Eduoard called back over his shoulder, “We’ll camp here tonight!”
The caravan began to disassemble, turning the wagons so they shielded their camp on two sides. Men set up bedrolls and tents, while a couple of hunters ventured deeper into the woods with their bows and knives. The family gathered together and put up a larger tent for themselves. A second large tent was erected beside it. Eduoard set himself up in the latter. He hung a rough map on one wall and flipped several buckets over to use as stools. That night, he called the merchants, hunters, trackers, and the ambassadors into the tent. The ambassadors and merchants took the stools. The hunters and trackers stood behind them. One stood closer to the flaps than the others, amber eyes scanning meticulously over each marking on the map. His skin was a little darker than theirs, sunkissed to a shade of caramel. Chocolate hair was long and thoroughly braided, and all of the braids were pulled up and tied together, out of his face. Even then, the ends tickled his shoulders. He had a scar on his shoulder, a couple of stripes of similar length, width, and texture. He had other, smaller scars as well, giving his arms and legs a weathered look. There was a band on his left wrist, braided out of leather straps with a clear, tawny stone braided in.
He listened as the captain spoke. "From our first efforts, we assume the jungle is two hundred leagues wide and six hundred deep. There are mountains, ravines, caverns, waterfalls, ruins, and gods know what else. Last time, our hunters encountered strange and powerful beasts. There is also a population of wildlings. Human, but fierce and uncanny with their attunement to the earth."
A younger mercenary interrupted. "Aren't they descendants of elves?"
"That's a theory, yes."
"They say they get their strength from blood sacrifice and eating the hearts of their victims," another one, older, said with a smile on his face. He winked and nudged the hunter closest to him. Others chuckled at the horrified expression he received from the youth.
Gael smirked, huffing lightly in amusement. Talks of wildlings always amused him.
Eduoard called for silence. The laughter died down. "Your amusement will be your death. The stories are true, but they are the least of your concerns here." He laid out some sketches of creatures, tacking them to the back wall with pins. The first one showed a large cat-like creature, with thick tufts of fur on the backs on its elbows, down the back of its neck, and on the tip of its tail. The tufts had been given a wispy, fire-like quality, and shadows were erased. The more disturbing detail was the size of the fangs in its jaw. A second picture showed a bird with wings open, a silhouette of a man beside it. Feathers fell like puffs of fire and smoke. A third picture showed a horse covered in stripes and dapples, a short and coarse mane, with a twisted horn rising out of the forehead. There were several other images, including a bull with a split, Y-shaped horn on its forehead, a deer with dapples and antlers like tree branches, and a serpent with a wide, colorful frill and glowing eyes. The captain hung up one more picture that had been sketched. It was a dragon.
He looked at the group pointedly. "These were sketched on the last trip my scouts made. They encountered each of these beasts. I don't need to tell you that this place is dangerous, and it will kill you if you do not stay with the caravan and do exactly as I or my tracker tell you do." He gestured toward the flaps of the tent. "This is my tracker and master hunter, Gael Lestor, of Pagetonya."
All eyes turned on the man with braids. He met each face, each set of eyes, and nodded once.
"Gael joined the last scouting trip as a recruit. He returned as one of our few survivors, and I'll drink to this: if not for his patience and skill with the wild, more would have died before they could get back."
Eduoard returned to the map. He placed two marks on it, a circle in the northeastern corner and a circle in the southwest. "We are here," he said, tapping the northern mark, "and our intention is to get here. We've made contact with a group of woodland elves. Darker skinned and closer to us in stature, but willing to work out an arrangement to trade. However, communication is a problem. Our only means of communicating with them as of yet is by ship, but the journey takes two to three months, and that’s not considering the dangers of this eastern passage. A route through the jungle may be safer and more direct, reducing time to two or three weeks instead. His Majesty would be pleased if we can return with a written agreement establishing trade with the people of Kagiso.”
The ambassador to the king’s court shifted and stood. “Don’t mind if I interrupt, Lord Eduoard. You are doing a fabulous job.” Eduoard’s eyes flashed a little, but the man seemed to not care or notice because he continued, “There is a lot at stake with this arrangement. I will not put it lightly, as some others have. The restoration efforts in Dureiden have put a stress on our treasury and storehouses. If we are to persevere against the blood elves, we must establish more connections. This is a feral land, inhabited by feral people and elves alike. Relationships - in body and coin - are vital to our survival and to maintaining this eden that our forefathers imagined and built for us a hundred years ago.”
“Laurent, you talk too much,” the other finely dressed man chided. “Sit down and let the captain speak. He was elected to lead this venture, after all. Not you. You’ve hardly got the place to speak of duty here, since you’ve never ventured beyond your estate until --”
“I’ll have you know --”
“Lord Laurent. Lord Pierre. Gentlemen!” Eduoard interrupted them firmly. The two men bristled and turned away from each other with a huff. The captain continued, “I’m sure you both have more than enough expertise to contribute, but we must do so peacefully or this will be more miserable than necessary.”
The group went quiet again. Eduoard sighed and resumed his briefing. He began to sketch a path through the jungle. Gael finally spoke up. “There are mountains in the middle. High, dense, and steep. Some are sheer. It would be wise to turn south and skirt them.”
Eduoard and many of the others looked back at the man. The captain nodded. “I agree. Master Gael, since you’ve been exposed to these woods before, perhaps you should lead this part of the plan?” He offered him the piece of charcoal that was being used to draw with. He stepped up to the map with him. By evening, the group had devised a rough plan for their trek. They would maintain their course for a few more days, then turn south and bypass the mountains. On the west side of the range, the ground sloped dramatically to flat jungles and wetlands, all the way to the coast. Eduoard assured them that it was unlikely for them to encounter wildlings or feral elves, for the sheer breadth and density of the jungles. Gael had little faith in that assumption.
Night fell on the camp. Fires glowed like clusters of starlight in the patchy fringes of the jungle. The merchants settled together around one fire. Hamon and Chrestien were brothers, though they didn’t favor each other. Chrestien had even brought his wife along. The two men talked and laughed lightly over pints of wine. Next to them, a man set up camp alone, with his own small fire and a modest pallet of battered, old furs. The brown tunic and leggings with simple leather boots and wooden beads hung around his neck made him seem out of place here. Yet, there was a gentleness about him that was refreshing when compared to the others. Gael approached him and stopped just outside of the fire’s light. “May I join you?”
The man looked up. His face was smooth, and his hair was thinning on his crown. “Ah, yes. Of course.” He gestured to the patch of grass on the other side of the fire. “Company is always a pleasure in trying times.”
Gael set his bag down first. He pulled out his own fur to sleep on, laying it down. He sighed softly and sat down on it. He opened his bag and pulled out some pieces of dried meat and smoked fat. “Hungry?”
The man shook his head. “Oh no, I don’t touch the stuff. Bad for my stomach. Thank you, though.”
He nodded and took a bite. He looked the man over one more time. He noticed the polished, wooden beads tucked into his clothes, and a small knife secure on his hip. “Why are you here? You aren’t a hunter or a soldier.”
“Ah, no, not exactly. I am a cleric, though, a soldier of spiritual matters. I am here as a holy man, in the event of… well, an accident or injury.”
Gael nodded. “So a medicine man.”
“Yes, you could… you could say that.” The hunter took another bite. “What do they call you, Master Hunter?”
“I’m not a master. My name is Gael. Just Gael.”
“Gael. It’s my pleasure.” He extended his hand to him. The hunter hesitated, then took hold. They shook gently, and Gael could tell from the touch, this was a man he could trust.