Hope

The soldiers were on a bearing directly South toward the Foijen and ran beside the river. This made it easy for Ned to keep on their tail and ensure his water container was full. He kept hydrated and the aches in his legs eased. In between food and water stops, the boy ran while keeping an eye on the soldiers’ spoor, always on the look out for danger signs. The Malaxians were cunning warriors, so Ned was wary of an ambush. If they caught him out, he would be dead.

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Relief

Ned looked at the sky until his breathing returned to normal. It was a dangerous move, but he had to do it. Now he could follow the Malaxians from a safe distance. He would be in a position to track and hide with a lot more confidence on this side of the river. Standing, his legs felt unsteady as he looked at the river and its fast current. The boy decided to go into the forest for a rest and some food. It took some time, but he felt better after the shock of the river crossing. His clothes were still damp, so he had to move to warm up. Ned stood and walked to the edge of the river. It was noisy as the waterfall hit the rocks. Ned looked at the ground and picked up the trail of the soldiers. He walked in their direction.

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Plunge

He looked down at the sheer drop. Rocks at the edge of the water would have meant certain death. The waterfall was thundering over to his right but, a bit nearer, was a pool of water so deep he could not see the bottom. He needed to cross to the same side of the river as the soldiers. If he stayed on this side, he could not be sure exactly where the Malaxians were. Tracking them had its dangers, but it was the safest option. Further downstream, rapids fell away over large jagged rocks, so he could not cross safely there. On the far side, boulders met the grassy river bank. He had just made an almost fatal mistake, but now he must take a risk. He walked toward the waterfall until the pool of water was directly beneath. There was no time to overthink this. Crouching down, he leapt clear of the cliff-face and fell feet first into the water below.

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Sliding Away

When the soldiers were out of sight, Ned waited and moved back into the forest. The ground was slippery with moss-covered rocks. He moved South through the woodland and saw the trees thinning out as a steep grassy incline veered to the river below. He decided to stop and scope out the land where the Malaxian were running. He needed to make sure they were gone before he moved further. If they spotted him now, arrows would rain down.

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Predators

Kroll led his men. It was the first time Ned had seen him in some time. Big Nose was second in line. They halted on their side of the waterfall. Kroll stood by the cusp of the falling waters. He looked right, toward the swollen river forcing its way through the land. Then the leader glanced North over the lake. He seemed to scan the mountain top and along the woodland from where Ned had just come. Kroll snorted and looked straight across the waterfall to where Ned was hiding. The boy remained deathly still, but stared straight back through the wolf teeth and foliage. The great warrior sniffed the air and squinted his eyes for a long time in Ned’s direction.

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Covert

Ned moved with extreme caution. By his reckoning, the Malaxians were within a mile or so of his position. He crept through the pine and was thankful for the soft woodland floor covering. As he walked over a hill, Ned edged downward and came to level ground. Yellow and orange streaks of light were just penetrating the trees to his left and he could hear the waterfall. He prowled toward the water. The sunlight from behind cast flitting shadows as he moved in a hunch. He kept his eyes ahead. Moving between the trees, he stopped to listen for unusual sounds, but all he could hear was the waterfall, which was increasing in intensity.

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Downward

Ned checked the map, which flapped in the wind. If he walked in an Easterly direction, he would circumvent the cliff face and then navigate across the pine-covered hills further down. He needed to keep away from the water so he was not in the open. Only when he was nearing the Southern end of the lake would he move inwards and toward the waterfall. Ned set off from the summit. The rocks were loose, so he slowed on the descent. Using his hands to steady himself, he headed for a scree-slope. Stepping and sliding down, he looked at the crags looming down. And then grasses intermingled with rocks, which led to some bushes. Before long, he had lost enough height to enter the pine forest.

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Get Ready

Ned looked toward his direction of travel the next day. He could not see the waterfall in the darkness, but the foothills to the South-East led that direction. He peered at the forest on the South-Western shore of the lake. Fires continued to flicker in the woodland. Faint wisps of woodsmoke rose above the trees and the contrast against the night sky was just visible. It was careless. Then something else caught his eye from the North. Another fire, but this was moving. It went along the Western side of the lake toward the fires. It must be more Malaxians carrying a lit torch. Ned figured one troop must have gone for the lake to cut him off, while the other tried to follow his trail. He knew Kroll’s men were well trained trackers, so he had done well to evade them. But they were no longer clandestine. And at least Ned knew he had shaken Kroll from his tail. From now on, they were ahead so he intended to track them. Tomorrow was going to be different. Feeling sleepy, he curled up and settled down for the night.

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Summit

He took a deep breath and stood, adjusting the bow on his back. Scrambling around a tree, Ned used it as a foothold and struck upwards. His determination kicked in. Further up, the trees were sparser and intermingled with rocks, so he got more traction with handholds and footholds. And the ground was drier up there. The moon shone through to give greater visibility. Even though mountain climbing was dangerous at night, at least he could now see where to put his hands and feet. The wind rose to a howl and rain clouds swept overhead. After another hour of clambering over rocks and through trees, Ned paused to look up. The vegetation petered out and a craggy ridge dominated his eyeline. It spurred him on.

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