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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Stealth

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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Falter

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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Alive

Ned got unsteadily to his feet. The snarling of wolves drifted away as the noise of flowing water took over once more. It was dream-like, but the boy was not afraid. He walked toward the wolves and past the dead soldier. They sniffed Ned as he moved away. He saw a short sword and sheath on the stoney ground. Picking them up, he strapped the sheath to his back and looked at the soldier. Flies swarmed over his open wounds. The wolves trotted back to the forest and the younger one stared back before following its pack. Howls came from the nearby trees.

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Attack

The boy clasped his dagger and backed away. Wild eyes watched from the undergrowth. The man was too big for him to take on in open combat. Ned thought fast. Glancing at the river, he stood a better chance against the elements than this huge soldier. He moved sideways toward the edge and the man rushed him. Before Ned could make it to the water, he fell and hit the ground. The Malaxian loomed over the boy and lifted his sword up in both hands. The soldier’s monstrous shadow blocked out the sun. After all he had been through, there was nothing Ned could do.

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Shock

Ned’s heart leapt. He put the bow on his back and dropped out of sight just as the soldier bounded through a clearing, heading in his direction. The boy ran from the warrior. Adrenaline pumped through him, but he kept a clear head. Panic now would be fatal. He ran hard until his legs hurt. His face and chest were soon soaked with sweat. Spotting a gorse bush, he dropped down. Sucking air in and out, he slowed his breathing down. Ned frowned. He was in mortal danger, and all because he thought he could make the shot. Getting up, he began to run again. As soon as he was on the far side of the hill, the boy swept Eastward toward the river. He pushed through the forest and kept going. Soon he could hear the flowing river ahead. Ned began to walk, with no idea of the soldier’s whereabouts.

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Mortal Danger

The boy was about to get off the hill when he saw something over to the left. Ned shuffled around and looked at the ridge-line. A soldier jumped onto a rock. From the black leather and headgear, it was obvious he was Malaxian. He was well-built and armed with a huge sword. The man stared East, toward the river. He must be looking for sign of the main troop of soldiers being followed. Ned backed toward a tree growing near a rocky outcrop. He stood and peered around. The soldier was in clear view. Ned carefully removed his bow and fed an arrow in. If he could hit this man, the troop would be down to fourteen men. Still far too many for him to take on, but one less would eliminate the immediate danger.

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