Battle

The order came for the King’s infantry to advance. Rough barks of war dogs pierced the morning air. Soon the battle raged in the valley. Swords clashed and arrows rained down. Ned cut enemy soldiers down with his sword, ever looking for their elite unit. The savagery struck fear into Gobba so he held back. At the forefront of the fighting, it was ferocious and blood flowed, but neither side yielded so knights on horseback entered the fray. Lord Snookington led his knights thundering downhill and stormed toward the Malaxians. The sound of battle was everywhere. Shouts. Screams. Grunts. Sobs. Thuds. A smell of death burnt nostrils. The former farm and mine workers from the Snook had never before witnessed such butchery.

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Ready

Ned and his fellow soldiers settled down in the camp. A light wind swept over the soldiers as Ned built a small fire using his flint and steel. The flames warmed him and he ate well. Afterwards, he cleaned the short sword and arranged his kit so he would be ready at short notice in the morning. He had a broken sleep, thinking about Kroll. It was time for revenge.

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Journey

All too soon, it was time to join the rest of the King’s army. Led by Lord Snookington on horseback in a full suit of armour, his knights followed on their horses. Villagers waved flags and cheered. Trumpets reverberated the air and church bells rang. A ragtag rabble of semi-trained peasant soldiers brought up the rear in leather and chainmail. Toward the foot of the High Street, they turned right to march North. Once beyond the village, Lord Snookington called a halt so the knights could take off their heavy armour and load it all onto horse-drawn carts. Feeling lighter and more comfortable, the noblemen mounted their horses and continued. Orders were shouted at the soldiers laden with bags and weapons to speed up.

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Recovery

In open land, the soldiers relaxed and hurried toward the village. The jolting was almost unbearable for Ned. The solemn parade made it to the Snook and village folk gathered around to witness the amount of dead bodies being brought back. On an open area of grass at the foot of the High Street, the bodies were laid out and funerals hastily arranged. The soldiers would be buried with full military honours. The merchants would organise a ceremony for their men. But, for Ned and his dead family, there was a problem. Funerals were not free of charge. Lord Snookington stepped forward and announced he would pay for the burial of the unknown swordsman’s family. His tales of bravery were legendary. And folk in the Snook owed him a great debt.

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Protect

The four bodies were strapped to horses ready for the off. Ned was put on a makeshift stretcher and tied to a horse. His dog was lifted on and she settled down. The column snaked its way downhill through the forest. The soldiers did not lower their guard, even though it was unlikely the Malaxians were still in the vicinity. It was common knowledge the bandits had a pact with the Malaxians and the unknown swordsman made their lives difficult for a couple of years. He must have been tracked to his home and slaughtered with his family. Only one injured boy had survived the Malaxian onslaught. It was a miracle he was alive.

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Discovery

A soldier ventured into the burned out shell of the cabin and found the charred remains of a woman and two children. It looked like they had been slaughtered inside before the building had been set alight, but it was hard to tell. The four forest dwellers were laid in a line on the grass outside. Soldiers searched the area and an eerie quiet descended. The horses could sense something. Soldiers stood still, wielding their swords at the ready. They waited.

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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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