A gentle breeze of warm air blew, causing the leaves of the tree to tremble, and Benjamin grabbed hold of the trunk of the tree to steady himself upon the branch.
'It's nearly dawn. If anyone is to come, I should soon see him arrive.'
He had spent the night up with Dorcus, passing the time in quiet conversation. There was some question of Eliezer's returning, which he hadn't, but that was somewhat anticipated. Dorcus had considered that Jordan may impress upon him to stay, which was a likely supposition and a common display of Mr.. Carder's ever mindful courtesy.
Now he stood, hiding himself in the tree at the center of the grassless clearing and waiting for the sun to rise. The letter which he had received called for a meeting at the full moon before dawn. The rendezvous was set for a secluded grove near the camps of the armies at the northeastern front, not far from the edge of the eastern woods.
The north country was given to lakes, rivers, and fertile farmlands, but here at the pass between the North Sea and the Royal Mountain Chain, it was nothing but wasteland, dirt and dust with the occasional tree or shrub. The warfront was barren, the life of the earth trampled out by the boots of men and hooves of horses as they fought back and forth pursuing ownership of the land.
He looked past the last lines of scattered trees to the faint and dying fires of the distant camps, waiting for anyone at all. If it were Tyberion who was to arrive, then all would be well, but if anyone else, all of this would very quickly become much more complex. The longer he was left to wait, the more nervous he became.
'He ought to have arrived already. It isn't like him to come so near day, and the dawn is against us.'
He watched as the light began to chase away the shadows from the surrounding landscape, engulfing everything that could be seen in the dull blue light of newfound morning. The coming light of dawn reflected off his white cloak and garments trimmed in gold, and he prayed that the shimmering fabric could not be seen through the leaves and boughs which covered him.
Benjamin swallowed nervously, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the situation as it developed.
'It's too late. If Tyberion were to come, he would have done so. Doubtless, this is a trap, then. They must be waiting for me. I'll have to wait them out.'
At this point, it was no longer a rescue mission. The colonel never would have left him to wait so long and near the break of day. It was far too dangerous for the both of them. No, it had now become an information gathering expedition, and one which he would very much like to get out of unscarred. But a man up a tree in a war zone at the break of day was not the ideal situation for a seamless escape, especially with the near guarantee of an ambush waiting.
At last, he saw a man coming over towards the tree from the direction of the camp. The tree had been the identifying landmark in the description of the agreed upon location of their meeting. The present reality that he was hidden in the tree rather than standing under it was the product of his clever caution rather than premeditated planning, and he was now very happy for it as he watched the ominous hooded figure approaching on the ground beneath him.
The man's garb was unfamiliar and his face was hidden from Benjamin, who carefully watched him from the heights of the tree. The darkly cloaked man stood under the tree for a short while before saying something, giving some kind of signal. Three other officers quickly appeared, men dressed in intelligence uniforms, and they rushed to the man's side from amidst the surrounding foliage.
'As I thought...'
The four of them spoke softly to one another briefly, the soldiers seemingly subservient to the man whose appearance was hidden from them. In a short time, the men dispersed, and the men who had appeared from the brush went out and began to search the outlying area.
'They're looking for me, but... surely, that's not all of them. They wouldn't have all given themselves up like this. Zahaynei is too smart for that, particularly being as he seems to know I'm here, or he thinks so, anyway.' He watched the line of trees which led back to the forest and towards home. 'The coverage of the trees will provide some safety for me and the limited visibility of the forest is certainly to my benefit, but getting there may present some difficulty.' He looked again to the surrounding brush and foliage. There was a ditch off to the eastern side of the grove, in the direction of the mountains but not far.
'A likely place for an ambush. I wonder how many of them there are, but no matter. I will escape them. Regardless, there must be more foot soldiers and surely some archers.'
He watched them for a while longer, turning his head this way and that slowly and deliberately, limiting motion so as not to draw attention to himself as he surveyed the area.
'They may well suspect I'm here, but they don't know where I am... thankfully. I can use that to my advantage. But these are the king's men. They caught the Colonel, it seems, and they are more than able to capture me. I will need be careful as to how I proceed...'
A dull purple light reflected off of his metal insignia, interrupting his thoughts, and, just as quickly, an arrow with a glowing tip whizzed by only a fraction of an inch in front of him, piercing violently into the trunk of the tree.
Benjamin's heart pounded. 'Don't move. Not an inch.' He swallowed hard. 'If they had seen me, they would not have missed. Though, the proximity is frightening.'
His eyes scrolled to the body of the arrow which protruded from the dark wood near his trembling palm. There was a loud crack and the sound of splintering wood as the maurium arrowhead twisted and tore into the trunk of the tree. The sound began to dissipate, and a hush fell over the barren terrain once again.
Suddenly, a loud bang resonated as the arrowhead exploded, casting out a violent flurry of splinters and luminescent shards in all directions. He winced, forcing himself to stay still as the shards and splinters flew around him. He felt a sharp pain cut through his left wrist as his hand held the trunk, and his fingers dug into the dark wood, responding to the pain. The unfamiliar sensation of this deep and piercing pain began to escalate and tingle, accompanied by a strange warmth. He relinquished his hold of the tree, allowing his arm to drop silently to his side, still without a word. The liquid warmth made its way slowly down his palm until it covered his hand, twisting around his fingertips and dropping to the branch below him.
'Well... this is it, then. Time to go.'
The shards had landed below him in a chaotic ring of glowing purple, patterned almost by design at the feet of the hooded man on the ground below him. There was a long silence which followed only to be broken by the faint sound of the slow drip of blood as it puddled on the soft ground in the midst of the debris.
The man adjusted his gaze, intrigued by the subtle sound and motion of the droplets.
He watched it fall and splatter against the dampened ground by the dim light of the shattered arrowhead.
He bent down on one knee and stretched out his hand to examine the substance, getting some of the dark red liquid on his fingertips and bringing it close to his face.
"Well, this is my chance," he muttered to himself quietly. "Help me, please," he breathed, poising himself on the branch and springing forward into a front flip.
He dove down with a flourish, landing expertly on the cloaked man's back and tumbling to the ground behind him, breaking flawlessly into a dead sprint and turning to the side, away from the camp and the ditch, in the direction of the forest. A flutter of arrows flew through the air, lighting up the sky behind him, but the hasty adjustment by the concentrated marksmen proved enough for his narrow escape.
Benjamin continued to run, the wound hurting as the blood flowed freely from his wrist.
'That's too much blood. It's too far a journey, and on foot...' He closed his eyes tightly, fighting against the stinging pain and blood loss. 'You'll have to help me. That's all. You'll just have to help me.'
The bowmen pulled again, and a second volley of arrows came chasing after him. They sunk into the ground around him, some in front, many behind, and others striking his cloak, breaking and falling to the ground without any significant impact.
He continued to run, knowing that the footmen would be fast behind him. If not, there was still a threat of the arrows exploding; although, that seemed to him less likely. Either way, he needed to disappear into the nearby brush and eventually find his way back into the thick of the forest to the south.
'A few feet more...' None of the arrows triggered, and Benjamin let out a sigh of relief. 'The first was a scouting arrow. They were looking for me, they sent out a probe, and they found me. They hit the mark, and they found what they were looking for...' He felt the blood on his hand. 'Pity.' He frowned. 'But... these aren't scouting arrows, so they will be pursuing on foot, then. I should watch that I'm not followed.'
He rushed into the brush and scattered trees, thankful to have some level of coverage. He continued to run, thinking it odd that no other arrows were shot at him, and he looked back as he entered into the line of trees which marked the edge of the eastern woods.
The cloaked man stood watching him, his face covered by the shadows, and he held up his hand as if to tell the archers to hold fire and the troops not to follow. The three men who had searched for him were standing at his side. Another four such men were off in the distance, not far behind them.
Benjamin saw the eyes of the archers as they watched him. They stood, bows in hand, not at the ready but at their side. There were others, foot soldiers who had begun to pursue him, but they, too, were quickly stopped.
"Hold!" the cloaked figure cried, throwing off his hood and revealing a familiar face. "Do not pursue him."
At his word, everything stopped, and Benjamin watched in awe as the elite task force came to a standstill, turned docile by the order of the Archmage.
Benjamin turned around entirely, taking in the sight of it. He was caught in shock and disbelief. His eyes grew wide and his mouth hung open. 'Adrien! What is he doing?'
"But, sir!" one of the officers protested.
"Do you question me?" Adrien responded with an imitation of the hardness expected of the servants of the Altruic ruler. "We have all we need. Now, stand down," he snarled.
'Adrien... thank you.' Benjamin smiled, quickly turning, and he ran again to make his escape into the forest behind him.
He ran for some time, frantically making his way through the flourishing woodlands of the northeastern region, before he felt his heart pounding, desperate for blood, and his eyes turned dark, the colors of the trees and foliage around him fading in and out of black. He grabbed hold of a high tree next to him, catching himself from falling. He stood panting, his breathing hardened.
'Perhaps... if I just rested a bit.' He considered the thought. 'But then... I might not make it.' He looked to his arm. 'There's so much blood draining... far too much blood draining.'
He felt faint at the sight of it and began to swoon. Then, a puzzling thing: a hand reached out and grabbed him, catching him as he fell.
His eyes closed as he faded out of consciousness, and he heard the soft words of impassioned alarm and kindly concern.
"Ben!" the man with the voice of a hoot owl cried, taking secure hold of him. "Oh, Ben," he sighed. "Come with me."