A chill shot down Ned’s spine as he hurtled away. But his legs seemed to be made of lead and he made slow work of the bank. The soldier pounded after him and soon made up the ground. As Ned was almost at the top, the soldier brought him heavily to the ground. The wind was knocked out of the boy and a gloved hand picked up the stolen sword. An iron grip enclosed around the boy’s leg. No words were exchanged.
The soldier dragged Ned back toward the Malaxian camp. The soldiers were alert and had taken up concealed positions, swords at the ready. Dread etched in the boy’s eyes and he felt sick to his stomach. In the clearing, Ned felt the grip release, then he was picked up and thrown headlong into the middle of the soldiers. Landing close to the fire embers, he looked up, surrounded by angry-looking men wielding swords. Ned’s mud-smeared face was visible as his face mask had fallen away. He rolled over and stretched, but it was beyond his reach. A soldier kicked it into the dying fire.
Ned was put into a sitting position and forced against a tree. Large men looked down at him. Ned bowed his head. The soldier who had caught him was in discussion with the leader. Ned could not make out what they were saying. This was beyond any game he played in the forest. He had crossed a line and knew that day meant his life would change forever. Kroll held the boy’s misbegotten gains and slashed it through the air as the soldier talked. The grizzled features of Kroll glared at Ned.
“Tie the boy to the tree,” he ordered.
Two soldiers grabbed Ned and manhandled his arms around the tree. His hands were bound with rope and he was blindfolded. His back was tight to the bark and his upper arms hurt. Moving his head around in a panic, he was hit in the side of the face by something hard. There was a metallic taste and blood trickled from the side of his mouth. Ned could not see anything and breathed heavily. He had put himself in harm’s way and now the boy was going to pay the price. Taking a long breath, he slowed his breathing down and heard a murmured conversation.
“…but he tried to steal from us.”
“That’s as may be…”
“We need to get back quickly. Kill him now so he doesn’t slow us down!”
“If the boy makes it back, I can sell him. We risk our lives out here, so you can be damn sure…”
The words drifted out of earshot. There was frenetic activity. Gear was being packed away. Shuffling noises. Scraping on a rock. The smell of woodsmoke subsided. His shoulders stiffened as footsteps crunched toward him. The thudding in his head increased as the blindfold was ripped off. Light flooded his vision. The rope securing him to the tree was cut and two soldiers bundled Ned roughly to his feet. He saw the cohort of men readying to move out. Nothing would be the same again.