Not a breath of wind touched the brush. The leaves, the branches, the twigs, were united in stillness. Silence was weaved into the black forest like the morning fog. The only sunshine peered in from a road that cut through the trees like a long narrow gash in the woodland. Between the bows the sunlight bled into the darkness and was eventually consumed completely; some two dozen yards therein. On either side of the dirt road the trees stood as though two armies of colossal wooden soldiers were hunched over and facing off from each other. Smaller shrubs and bushes clawed at the edges of the road with their gnarles roots. Slowly the brush was consuming the road and healing the gash in the forest.
From somewhere out of the shadows of the forest crept a man covered in mud and a ragged cloth with twigs poking out of it. In one hand he held an axe, in the other a large circular scythe. He looked first up the road and then down the road. He listened patiently for a while. When satisfied that he was alone he gently placed his axe on the ground and started hacking off the smaller branches of the brush. He worked with speed and skill, but incredibly making hardly any sound. Within half an hour the brush was retreating from the edges of the road and it looked as though the two armies of wooden giants were slowly moving apart from each other.
Swapping his scythe for an axe he commenced splitting the stumps of the shrubs and restoring the road to its cultivated state. The axe was much louder than the scythe however, and at first he failed to hear the sound of approaching hoof beats on the dirt road. When at last he heard the sounds he spun around axe raised in both hands and hollered deep and loud like a ferocious barbarian. Facing him was a warrior on horseback. Immediately realising that this was no highwayman come to steal from him the man quickly dropped his axe, clasped his hands together and bowed. The horse and rider stopped two swords lengths from the grubby man and an armoured soldier skillfully dismounted to the ground.
“Hark! Name yourself man,” barked the warrior.
Keeping his forehead lowered and gaze steady to the ground the man answered, “I am called Okken my lord. Your humble servant.”
“I am not your lord, but a thane pledged in service to your lord. My name is Randall, from which village do you come from?”
Okken didn’t look up, “I come from the village of Humhyde sir.”
Randall walked around the man slowly. His chainmail armour ringing as he walked, its subtle sound amplified by the stillness of the forest. An arming sword tied to his belt clanked with his every second step.
“Okken, the village of Humhyde is at least three miles from here, what are you doing so far away from the land your lord has bound you to?”
Okken shivered, “My duty, sir.”
“What is your duty Okken?”
“I am a hedge cutter sir,” replied Okken with a touch of fear in his voice.
Randall walked up to him, his figure enlarged by the bulk of the armour he wore. The warrior appeared to examine the dirty and unkempt manner of the serf with revolted curiosity.
“Why are you this far out from your village cutting hedges?”
“It is my duty, sir, I am to maintain the hedges along the road to town for four miles out. It is so that when people journey along this road there is not enough brush cover for highwaymen and murderers to lay concealed for an ambush.”
Randall nodded understandingly, “I see, but why this grubby appearance and the twigs stuck to your shirt?”
“It is so that any highwaymen who watch this road and dwell in these woods do not see me easily. For if they were to see me clearing away the brush they would use as cover for their dastardly deeds they would kill me outright.”
Randall smiled, “of course, I see now the merit of your dress. You are a careful man Okken,” Randall sighed thoughtfully, “I am tired from my journey, I will take a rest here and watch over you so that you may work confidently. I am a skilled warrior and will not let any highwaymen do you harm. Then when you have finished clearing this section you will escort me to Humhyde and introduce me to the village elder.”
“Yes, sir, at once sir.”
Okken got back to work, this time without any of his care to be silent and discrete. Relieved of his fear of detection he was able to prune and cut back the brush twice as quickly as before. Randall summoned his mount to him and took out some provisions from his saddle bag and ate a meal while watching Okken labouring.
“Okken, have you see many people travelling along this path over the past few days?”
“Yes sir, a group of villagers came by from town three days ago, and yesterday a pair of monks heading towards the town.”
Randall pressed Okken for all the details he could remember about the villagers and the monks. He was interested in the monks until he heard the details of their description and then lost enthusiasm to ask any more questions on the matter.
“How about in the village Okken, has anything out of the usual been happening there?”
“No sir, everything is as usual. Some of our crops were stolen in the night three weeks ago, but other than that the village has been peaceful.”
“Did you catch the thieves?”
“No my lord, they made a clean escape.”
“Well Okken good man, I will be staying with you in the village for the next while. I have been sent on a mission by our liege, lord Jurgen. There are dark forces hiding in these woods and he wants me to rid his lands of them. If you act as my eyes and ears and report back to me what you see and hear, I have it in my power to reward your loyalty.”
“Thank you sir, I will serve you as best as I am able.”
Randall mounted his horse and with Okken following him proceeded to Humhyde.