Mists lay heavy on the ground that morning. The group of men, heavy laden, continued forward, their feet and legs obscured. They had been trudging since just after the middle of the night and had lost any sense of marvel at their surroundings. The hills were behind them, and the small river was crossed, so the rest of their journey was simply slogging their way to the end. It was vital they arrive at their destination before noon, leaving no time for rest or pause.
Dark birds sang dark songs as the men walked through the empty field, the rare trees drooping in seeming depression about where they ended up in life. Even the sun felt restrained about imposing itself on this scene of desolation, and rose only reluctantly, though once it did rise the invigorating rays gave a new found sense of purpose to this hardy band of adventurers.
It was a unique bunch of men, connected only by the single purpose of their present enterprise. Each had their own history of why they were part of this present group; each had their own strengths and weaknesses which somehow gave a strength and unity to the group as a whole. Should this adventure fail, these men knew, the consequences would be dire for many. In concert, then, they moved, they struggled, they fought, they swore, they bled; their goal their only thought, their end their only inspiration.
They were a party of eight, all stalwart and courageous. All dedicated to seeing this through no matter what came their way.
In command was a tall, lanky man, blonde of hair, with a reddish tinge in his beard speaking of a distant Irish past. Most of the group simply knew him as ‘sir’, though his given name was Matt, which wasn’t short for Matthew. Around middle age, just before the point in which one is looking back more than looking forward, he had earned his charge through daring feats and dangerous challenges. Many had been saved due to his quick mind, and explosive reactions. There was little he would not face if needed, and yet his lack of pride kept him from running into challenges which were needless or folly. His was a wiry strength, strength of endurance and practicality.
Bright sky blue eyes pierced through all that he gazed upon, taking in both a breadth and depth of information with every look. Many felt the weight of this stare, emboldening or shaming depending on the character of the recipient. He wore the typical drab, dark colors they all did, his pockets bulging with maps and various tools, but somehow even without distinct insignia gave off a clear air of authority and power. He walked near the middle of the group, glancing about continually as they moved. Sweat dripped down his face.
Walking at the front of the group, in the point position, watching for danger, listening for warnings, taking in the messages of the flora and fauna around them, was a smaller man. Small in stature, yet not lacking strength of body or mind, this man had an almost instinctual understanding of the nuances of the natural world. It seemed birds spoke to him, the plants provided him counsel. It was a skill based on knowledge and training, but heightened by some primal instinct which arose the moment he first stepped into a forest.
One realized with him nature does not always work efficiently in giving the right people the right skills in the right setting. For most would expect this man to have been birthed among the trees and hills, yet his youth was spent almost completely amidst concrete and steel, in the middle of the urban jungle, where life clung only barely. The moment he left the city, however, and came first into the wilds of the land his very soul blossomed, and some heretofore hidden being erupted into fullness. His skills were so great that the ancient practice of naming came back into style just for him. Tracker they called him, for that is what he did.
When mid-morning arrived Matt ordered the group to pause a moment, and plan their final path and push. As they were breaking trail while moving it was vital they seek the route which would be both quickest and easiest. Simply to keep going mindlessly would risk being trapped or slowed by some avoidable terrain. It was wiser and more prudent to stop a moment and confer with one another.
It was a swamp they were now in, though not a particularly inhospitable swamp. It was alive and active, but provided enough of a path for walking as needed. They did not have any kind of inflatable, so stayed on foot for the journey through, which led to the brief halt. Birds filled this area, all kinds, with their songs, and sounds of flight. Gentle cooing, delighted singing, raucous shrieks; a myriad of voices, mostly with a clear delight and cheer, became evident as the men finally were able to stop and simply listen.
Tracker eased his attention slightly, knowing this was a place of peace and rest. The others, not so aware of the nuances of nature, stayed on their guard, thinking of swamps as inherently troublesome. Matt took in the scene briefly, with eyes and ears, then reached down into the pocket on his left thigh, pulling out a folded map. He glanced quickly at it, knowing it virtually completely by memory, but simply wanting to confirm his decisions.
A loud continual caw staccatoed in the distance. Tracker looked up, around, tense and concerned in the instant. Matt looked over at him, not having to ask anything.
“Danger is behind us,” Tracker whispered to him. “It is moving our way. We must hurry.”
Quickly packing whatever they had pulled out, the men again began to move forward, with Matt only giving directions if a needed alteration of their path was in order.
They moved with quickness, with intensity, even passionately as the import of their task was once again forced into their minds.
The swamp came to an end, with a change of trees and ground cover, thick shrubs and brush with tough and thorny branches taking up the ground. Though without water, the brush was itself as impassable, requiring continued vigilance as to the appropriate track.
In less than an hour and a half they reached what was clearly the edge of the wood. It was just before noon, the sun was high and hot in the sky. Tracker paused, letting the group move past him, as he listened again and watched. The danger was still present, closer, gaining he determined. He darted again to the front, uttering a firm, “Quickly!” to Matt as he ran past him.
Passing the last of the trees the group emerged into a large clearing. A large structure, ornate and beautiful, became evident. Built primarily of logs, this structure was a full three stories high, with flourishes speaking more of artistry than practicality. This was their goal, their destination. They hurried towards it, mindful of the time and danger which was upon them.
As they neared a door opened in the back of the building facing the harried group. A man emerged. Tall and broad, black hair and very dark skin, he was dressed in a well-tailored suit. He had also the look of authority and an air of one with pressing concerns. As the men came closer he watched them, knowing fully their purpose, and expecting their arrival at this present moment.
Matt hurried even quicker, placing himself at the front of his band, so as to be the first to greet the austere administrator awaiting them. The moment they reached the doorway, the man spoke, his voice deeper than even one would expect, cutting Matt’s voice off as he did so.
“Ah, the wine and cheese. The guests have been eager for your arrival. They are getting peckish.”