Chapter 9
The Elf-friend

South Pendragon Forest, Pendragon

Dale the Marshal of the South Quarter stood alone at the edge of the forest. It was dangerous to venture out this far alone, but his men were not far off. He had his horn to raise the alarm should Goblins or some other creature of the forest attack, but there did not seem to be any immediate threat. That could change quickly, though.
He recalled the lessons of his father, the previous Marshal of the South. He was a scout during the Goblin War. Few were better at tracking those wretched vermin. Though Goblins were often rather stupid, they could be crafty with the right leader. More than once would seasoned men go into the forest, never to return, no doubt caught in some ambush.
Though Dale was only a boy during the Goblin War, he was nevertheless old enough for ranging near the war's end. He saw firsthand what the vile Red Caps could do to a man and narrowly avoided death several times himself. Yes, he was all too aware of the danger, but he had his reasons for being out here.
A hand clapped over his mouth and the edge of a knife was pressed against his neck.
"You're distracted," a voice said. "You're too busy thinking when you should be listening."
The hand lifted and the knife was taken away. Dale turned to see the Elf Galen, the one he had come to meet. Galen had been a friend of his father and his father before him. It was because of him that Dale was called 'the Elf-friend'.
Reflexively touching his neck--though not a drop of blood would be spilled unless it was Galen's intent--, Dale replied, "You pad about quieter than a cat. I don't have Elf ears like yours to hear a butterfly's breath."
"Then you must work all the harder if you want to stay alive in these woods," Galen said.
It often seemed that the Elf did not have a proper appreciation for a human's limitations, but harsh and unreasonable as his training often was, it was perhaps the greatest contributor to Dale's continued survival. However, now was not the time for another lesson.
"The King has ordered me to investigate deeper into the woods," Dale said, getting straight to the business at hand. "Have you learned anything new? Has anything changed since I left for the Council?"
"I'm but one man," Galen replied. "I spend too much of my time making the circuit back and forth along the edges of the forest trying to keep those woodcutter families alive, El-Naia only knows why."
Dale had heard such stories such as Elves being able to talk to trees, that their lives were bound up in that of a mother tree. Galen had never admitted to any of it no matter how many times Dale would ask when he was younger. There was no doubt that Elves had an affinity for trees and little wonder they would take a dim view of the woodcutters who made their homesteads at the edges of the forest. Galen at least had the grace to suffer them their livelihood so long as they did not become too greedy and even went so far as to offer a measure of secret protection from the the dangers that lurked deeper in the woods.
"Have there been any more attacks?" Dale asked.
"There was nothing for about three weeks after you left," Galen said. "I thwarted one attack, a band of six. Two weeks after that, I learned Old Thord's clan fended off a band of eight. The Anundsson homestead, the one about three days from here, wasn't so lucky. By the time I got there ten days ago, the place was already burned down. I tracked the ones responsible. Thought I could get them to lead me to their hidden village, but they split up. Maybe they picked up my scent. Maybe there is no hidden village."
"Or maybe there's more than one," Dale suggested. "It just seems so hard to believe. By the end of the war, the King's men had gone from one end of the forest to the next, killing every Goblin they could find."
"Every one they could find," Galen noted. "These woods once teemed with those little devils. Is it any wonder a few evaded the old King and have spawned a new generation to trouble the days of the new King?"
"If only we could find the hidden village and burn it to the ground, these raids would end."
"You would do just as well to burn down the entire forest," Galen said. "The forest gives life and takes it. The Goblins are just a part of that."
"Then why do you fight them?" Dale asked.
"Because I am like the forest too," Galen replied, holding his bow. "I give life and I take it."
"Is there nothing you can tell us about where the hidden village might be?"
"To the west of Uthcaster, the forest is wider and thicker. If they emerge from any single point, it would be there."
"Thank you."
"I can't tell you not to go ranging, but be careful out there. These raiding parties may be small, but they are attacking more frequently now, striking at too many places. The village itself could have hundreds, thousands even."
"We only need to find the place," Dale said, "then lead the King's men to put an end to them once and for all."
Galen furrowed his brow and said, "It is a dangerous thing you mean to do." But rather than press the issue further, he unslung his bow and extended it to Dale, saying, "Take care and happy hunting."
Dale tapped Galen's bow with his own, a gesture used to mark their partings, and replied, "Happy hunting to you too."