At first light, the soldiers broke camp and tentatively moved deeper into the forest. The leader called a halt when one of his men noticed snapped branches and Malaxian bootprints in the mud. The enemy soldiers had left the track at this point and entered the forest. From their bootprints, it was clear they had moved at speed. Digesting this information, the men continued down the track and approached the ambush site. All was quiet, except for the buzz of flies around bodies. The merchant’s men lay dead, with wares strewn about the forest. It was a botched robbery. Three of their comrades had also met their end. The bodies of the friendly were lined up at the edge of the track. Each were checked for a pulse, but all were cold. The slain bandits were dragged from the pathway and bundled into a pile.
The troop commander walked into the forest and knelt down. He saw several footprints and disturbed foliage, and deduced both bandits and Malaxians had stormed downhill to attack. There was no sign they melted back up the hill afterwards. He ran downhill and onto the track, observing the direction he had approached from. A heel print in some mud. It was a Malaxian boot. Further up, he saw more Malaxian bootprints and commanded his seasoned soldiers back down the track toward the entry point to the forest.
Further down the track and the horse riders dismounted. One at a time, the whole troop jumped over a ditch into the thick trees. They moved in single file through the undergrowth. They were operational. No noise. Even the horses were quiet as they ventured further into the woodland. The men communicated using only hand signals. The commander tracked deep into the forest. Footsteps in the mud, snapped branches and blood left an obvious trail. With caution, they edged deeper into unchartered territory. The men were nervous. Too many soldiers had lost their lives in there. It was the closest point in the Kingdom to Malaxia and a notorious posting. The detachment numbered thirty men, all with front line experience. But it was difficult moving over the hills and between the trees without any paths. They were fit and moved slow. There were no rests. The dead soldiers down below were at the forefront of their minds.
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