Three Down

The Malaxians ran further and found the point where the swordsman entered the forest. Studying his footprints, it was clear he was limping. Kroll saw a spot of blood on a leaf. They followed him through the forest, moving quickly. The disturbed mud and occasional snapped branch meant they could easily follow the injured man’s trail. He stood no chance against this band of bloodthirsty hunters. Kroll grunted in satisfaction. It had taken patience and skill to get this close to the swordsman. Jorrin headed into a dene between two wooded hills. Kroll sent three scouts over to the right, while he led the rest of his men straight ahead in pursuit.

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From a wooded hill to the rear, warriors moved in silence toward the two men below. Kroll held a fist in the air and his men halted. They were within striking distance of the swordsman for the first time. With a forward arm signal, the Malaxian warriors charged downwards. The heavy thuds made Jorrin swing around. He saw a large detachment of Malaxians storming through the trees. Well-armed, they wore dark leather uniforms. He set the horse off at speed and grabbed onto the saddle horn. The warriors made it to the path only to see the merchant and swordsman making their escape.

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A merchant of fine goods from Snookington Village headed with reluctance through the forest on his journey to trade in the next manor. He and several men travelled with a dozen horses laden with luxury goods. They were accompanied by three soldiers from the King’s army. The overgrown path was splintered with shards of light breaking through the canopy above. Large rocks and steep hills dominated the land. Fear etched into their faces until they saw bright sunlight at the end of the track.

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Almost Home

Ned continued through the forest until daybreak. In the half-light, he hunched down by a gorse bush and ate the last of the supplies Krea had given him. And he took in some water. He had been on the move for more than a day and a night without a proper break. Weariness was setting in. Ned sat on some grass and looked at the glistening dew. But he could only afford a brief stop as he had to get to his father before Kroll. And the boy was nearly there.

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Familiar Territory

Crawling toward the grassy verge of the river, Ned got as far as he dared. Stepping over some moss-covered rocks, he slipped into the water and drifted downstream. Opposite the encampment, he saw the fire and dark shapes of sitting men. Harsh voices rose above the trickling water. The river took him away until all signs of the Malaxians were no more. Ned meandered along with the flow of the water for a long time afterwards. Eventually, he swam for the riverbank and hauled himself out. The soldiers were way to the North now, but he had to be careful. If his trail was picked up, they would hunt him down. He could not afford to be in that position again.

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Getting Away

Bathed in moonlight, Kroll dismissed the bandits, who moved to the far edge of the camp and settled down. In the shadows, Ned watched. He grasped his dagger, knowing he could attack Kroll now and slip away in the confusion. It would be possible to take him out from this distance. But these men were relentless. If one fell, another took his place to finish a mission. It was how they worked. The boy held his nerve. He took his hand from the dagger and decided to get to his family first. It was the only way he could try to save them. Kroll may have the upper hand on his father, but not on Ned. The boy flattened down and moved back into the darkness.

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A noise rose above the flow of the river. It was sharp and abrupt. He crouched down and moved carefully into the trees. Staying still, another noise. Ned lay down flat on the forest floor. The Malaxians were here. He crawled forward and stopped to listen. A hacking cough broke through the air. Creeping further in, he heard muffled voices. In the dense foliage, he moved quiet and slow. Little by little, he closed the distance. The ground was soft and he had the skill to move with no noise.

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Closing In

Ned looked up at the hazy sun. He squinted, then his eyes flickered as he looked at his direction of travel. Southward again. Having packed his kit away and strapped the bow and arrows to his back, he stretched his legs and began to run. In between the trees and downhill at first, he felt fresh and picked up the pace. He headed back to the river and found the trail of the soldiers. He ran for longer periods between brief walking rests. The sun gleamed, but there was a chill in the air. Perfect for running. Later in the day, as the sunlight faded over a wooded hill, he kept going, gasping for breath. He came to a halt and knelt to check the soldiers’ bootprints. He was closing in. As dusk fell upon the land, he knew they would be setting up camp. Ned waited in the gathering darkness, wondering if he had the courage at this critical point. He stood and ran toward the soldiers. It was soon dark.

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Target Practice

By mid-morning, he had earned a rest. Ned dropped his bag on a carpet of pine needles and he noticed some blackberries. Scavenging handfuls, the boy ate and drank water. He leant into the river to replenish his leather drinking flask. Moving back toward his gear, he heard wood pigeons above. Dappled sunlight broke through the branches. He was tired, but there was something important to do.

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Ned walked along the path and feelings kicked back in. His skin was clammy and he tried to catch his breath. The boy needed the safety of the forest before moving on. With a pounding heart, his eyes darted about. Panic set in and he faltered. Leaning an arm against a tree, the boy had to rest. He sat down and thought about the monumental task of evading the remaining armed warriors. Helplessness washed over his deathly pale features. This was his low point. He curled up and thought about giving up. Pulling the wolf headgear low to block out the light, tiredness overwhelmed him.

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