Ned looked at the soldier barking orders. He was tall and broad shouldered, with a craggy face and creased forehead. His uniform was dark and chain-mail just visible. A large sword hung from a belt to one side and he stood with hands on hips. Ned did not know it, but this was a select band of warriors. The trained killers operated on the forefront of armies and were the best. The leader, Kroll, was the most decorated warrior in Malaxia.
Apart from the noise of the soldiers, the woodland was still. The forest animals and even the birds had been reduced to silence so as not to attract any attention from these battle-hardened soldiers. Ned looked around the encampment and counted seven. Their equipment was within reach of each man. Except for one item. A short stabbing sword lay on the ground away from the men.
Ned was transfixed by the sword. A real weapon would improve his swordsmanship beyond anything he could achieve without it. The danger was palpable, but he dared himself to take it. He was hiding in thick bushes and settled down in the undergrowth. Keeping low, he crawled toward the sword. Raising up, he trod quietly on some pine needles. Stretching his hand out, he could not quite reach it. He crept nearer and grabbed the weapon in one swift movement. A clattering came from within the camp and Ned shuddered. The lid of a pot had fallen and hit a rock on the forest floor. The boy ducked down as Kroll rebuked the offending soldier for the commotion.
“That’s it. We’re going on hard routine. Put the fire out. All meat will be eaten raw from now on. You’re getting careless. We need to operate smarter!”
To the sound of the troops kicking dirt over the fire, Ned quietly shuffled backwards until he was again inside the thicket. Turning around, he crept away. In the safety of undergrowth, he heard a crunching noise nearby and froze. Another soldier was walking toward the camp. Ned’s breathing quickened. But the soldier was alone. The boy jerked his head around and saw a black boot on a pathway so close he could have touched it. A bead of sweat tricked down his face. But he was well hidden in the shadows. The man continued on his way and Ned closed his eyes.
Crawling through the bushes, making no noise at all, Ned raised onto his feet and ran. He moved quick and focussed on the ground. He went up a steep hill and, for a fleeting moment the warrior looked over his shoulder and spotted the boy. The man’s voice cut through the trees.