As the sun rose over the tree tops, Ned awoke to birdsong. He peered out of a gap he made in the leaves. Hearing rustling, he remained still. The crumpling on the forest floor was light, but just audible. A hedgehog came into view. It was close and looked at Ned with a twitch of its nose. But something startled the creature and it scurried away. Ned closed the leaves back over his face. He heard gruff voices. Soldiers entered the clearing.
“Sir, the tracks stop on this outcrop of rock.”
The troops stood on the mass of stone.
“Everyone stay where you are. We need to find which way he went. It won’t take long to pick his footprints up again.”
Ned recognised that voice. It was Kroll.
The leader continued. “We know this boy. He may be able to march like us. But he’s only a boy. We will find him and then he’ll pay with his life!!”
Ned’s heart leapt, but he stayed silent and still.
After a long pause, a man called out. “Here!! Look. The moss on the rock has been disturbed. And over there. A footprint.”
“Good.” It was Kroll again. “Now follow carefully. We need to stay on him. Pressure him into making mistakes. Move out. And, from now on, only hand signals. We’re close, I can sense it. We must not let him escape.”
The soldiers walked away and followed the false trail Westward. The noise of their boots grew quieter until the sound of birds filtered through the forest again. Carefully, Ned rose to his feet and looked over the rock where the soldiers had been. They were gone, but only just. He studied the map and decided to head East toward a lake. And, for the moment, every step would double the distance between him and the soldiers. He slung his bag over a shoulder and looked around the clearing.
But Ned had a problem. The ground in every direction was a mixture of mud, grass and leaves. If he walked East straight away, the soldiers would find his footprints and be close on his tail. He looked North, back in the direction he had come from and smiled. Ned went to the edge of the rock and then walked backwards into the trees. When he came to the point where he had stopped crawling the night before, he dropped to his stomach and crept backwards. It was awkward and slow, but eventually he got near the clearing. It was deserted. Better still, it was filled with muddy footprints in every direction. But he was in the open. Ned ran across the clearing and followed a track into the forest which the merchants had used, doing his best not to leave any scarring or footprints. He took one last look over his shoulder at the swampland. Mist rose above the water like eerie, drifting clouds. Beyond, he could just make out the dark outline of Malaxia rising up, cloaked with fog. Krea was back there somewhere. He hoped she was okay.