Aftermath

From a hill, the men hunkered down and observed a pathway below. All was quiet, so they moved off. Rounding a bend to the right, hills rose on both sides. The soldiers noticed three Malaxians had entered the forest to the right, but the rest stayed on the path. They remained as one force and moved along the pathway. Further up, the men came upon three dead Malaxian soldiers in a clearing. Two had been killed by arrows and the other a stab wound. It was clear from their leather uniforms the dead were from a crack troop of the Malaxian infantry, renowned for their ruthlessness. These warriors covered ground quickly and were the fiercest warriors. And three lay lifeless at their feet. The troop commander gave the faintest of nods. Skilled fighters must have been at work during this encounter.

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Tracking

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.

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Mission

The merchant was dragged from the horse and soldiers tended to his injuries on the ground. His stab wounds were deep so material was ripped and wrapped around to stem the blood flow. The man was frightened and babbled out his story. The ambush; dead soldiers; mystery swordsman; and Malaxian warriors. The leader of this unit digested the information and walked away for a moment. Rubbing his mouth with one hand, his mind focussed on the lost soldiers. He had trained them. They were good men.  He spotted a couple of children playing nearby and his soldiers looked at him for orders. The troop commander returned.

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Away

The injured merchant clung on for dear life as blood oozed from his injuries. His shoulder had been sliced, but the stab wound to his midriff was worse. He was losing consciousness and leant forward. But at least he was heading away from the robbers. With fear in its eyes, the horse galloped along the stoney track. As the black steed thundered away, fading sunlight penetrated the wooded hill to one side. The man’s glistening blood poured down the animal. Dust kicked in the air left a clouded trail in its wake. One man was escaping from the carnage in the forest.

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Saved

Ned stood over the dead soldier and saw his father still fighting off the other warriors. He could taste sick. Stumbling, he tried to move toward the fight, but fell to his knees. Pushing himself up, everything was spinning. He could hear swords clashing, but everything was blurred. With his vision blackening around the edges, he fell face down. Waking to a tugging at his sleeve, he saw Skar trying to pull him back. Ned closed his eyes and woke a brief moment later with the dog licking his face.

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Brave

Reloading, Ned fired two more arrows in quick succession. His aim was pure and true as warriors fell. A Malaxian moved in to attack the lone swordsman. Jorrin defended with his sword and, leaning in low, caught a warrior with a dagger. The soldier collapsed as the swordsman launched a darting attack. Ned stood with his bow pointing directly at Kroll. But, determined to help out, adjusted his aim and the arrow hit the man fighting his father. The warrior sunk to his knees and Jorrin pushed him aside.

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Run

Jorrin and Ned raced away through the clearing and the boy gestured toward an incline. It was a short-cut back to the cabin. Jorrin frowned as Ned grabbed his arm and forced him to move faster. He was surprised at how strong the boy had become. They gained height over the clearing, but Jorrin limped more. He winced in pain. Jorrin stood on a branch and it snapped. Ned held a finger to his mouth and helped his father to the top of the hill.

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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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Injured

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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