Ned was left to his own devices and learned about camouflage. He tied heather, fern and twigs to his clothing, and made a piece of cloth bound with foliage to wrap around his head. When he went to ground, it was almost impossible to see him. The boy had basic weaponry too. A catapult had been fashioned out of a Y-shaped stick and some stretchy string. With practice, his accuracy became quite good with a supply of pebbles carried in a pouch.

He moved silently around the forest and watched when cut-throats attacked the merchants. These rough men were a nasty bunch and it made Ned wary. Then, one day, he saw a hooded figure save some travellers. The fight was short and fierce, and it ended in victory for the lone man. During the action, Ned moved closer and got a good look at the swordsman. He wore a cloak and hood like his father’s. In fact the man was about the height of his father and even moved like him. In the evening, Jorrin came home stinking of beer. It had been raining and he walked through the front door with his hood up. Ned looked, but said nothing. His father was moody, so the boy went straight to bed.

In time, Ned saw the outlaws were assisted by soldiers. He heard tales of Malaxian warriors and guessed that was who these big men were. They stood at least a head and shoulders taller than men from the Kingdom. These warriors were broad and muscular. They wore blackened helmets, crafted in steel. Their uniform was burnished chain-mail on the upper body, with surcoats of black leather and extra leathered layers on the shoulders. Their dark trousers were baggy and the men wore black boots. Large swords hung by their sides and some were archers with bows and quivers full of arrows strapped to their backs.

The Malaxian soldiers were ruthless fighting machines. Any resistance was swiftly dealt with and the merchants were cut down. The boy saw several fights where Malaxians took on infantry from the King’s army. It was a huge mismatch. One Malaxian could easily defeat three or four ordinary soldiers. Ned had never seen swordsmanship like it. Even his father was not that good.

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