The story so far:
Walking as quickly as possible with their injured companions, Phanza and Hosus took point and led the group down a barely visible deer trail. For two straight hours, the only sound intruding on the enclosed path was the crackling of dried leaves under the group’s boots.
The trail led to the edge of the forest, opening onto a broad grassland that stretched from horizon to horizon. Before stepping out into the open plain, Hosus ordered the others to halt. Dropping to her belly, she slithered into the grass to quickly scout the area.
“I hate it when she scouts alone,” grumbled Bertran. He was fiercely protective of the lithe thief, for they and Nar had grown up in the same village and considered each other family.
Pral just looked at him, but Nar grinned at his older brother.
“She’ll be okay. She always is,” Nar reassured him.
Bertran nodded, but continued to mutter to himself. Everyone else was silent, alone with their thoughts. It was nearly a half hour before Hosus returned.
After drinking some water, she began her report. “There are two raiding parties of Slandra, about ten miles to the south. The north is empty of all but natural animal life, and to the west I saw a large gathering of warriors.”
“Human or Slandra?” Pral asked quickly.
“Human. I counted near seven hundred, which would easily allow them to wipe out those Slandra raiders.”
“I wonder if that is all they plan,” Phanza stated quietly.
Hosus looked at him, but shook her head. She had not thought it wise to slip into the camp and discover their plans. Everyone nodded in agreement, then all eyes turned toward Pral. He would determine their next course of action. Several quiet moments passed before he revealed his plan.
“Obviously, we will not go south. None of us want to battle the Slandra again so soon. To the west, we could join the men. But we do not know if they are friend or foe, and I would rather not take that chance. To the north, there is a river, if I remember correctly, that can take us all the way to the coast, if needs be.”
“I think the choice…” said Glyc.
“…is obvious,” finished Wenley.
Pral nodded, looking at the others. Each consented in turn.
“We go north then,” stated Pral simply.
The group stood, lifted their gear onto their backs, and stepped onto the plain. They faced north, keeping to the edge of the forest, and shielded their eyes from the setting sun. They walked until darkness made everything the same shade of deep blue, then set up camp. They ate a cold dinner, for a fire would have been seen for miles around.
They dropped off to sleep soon thereafter. Bertran assumed the first watch of the night. Nar took his place shortly before midnight, and Pral took the final watch before morning. He always assumed this duty, for it was that time of the night when everyone was least watchful.
The night passed uneventfully, and Pral woke everyone up at first light. After quickly collecting their gear, they continued walking north, slowly angling themselves onto the plain. They ate a cold breakfast of travel bread in silence.
Around noon, they discovered a hidden stream. They halted to fill their water bags and allow Hosus to scout ahead. They waited ten minutes before resuming travel, and Hosus caught them after only a few steps.
Her breathing was labored, as if she had just been sprinting, and the look in her eyes spelled trouble.
“What is it?” Phanza asked, dread creeping into his voice.
“It seems we are to fight,” Hosus replied. “We are caught between that human army from yesterday and no small number of Slandra ahead.
“Where did they come from?” questioned Pral.
Hosus only shrugged in response.
“Can we get around?” the twins asked. Despite their extraordinary talents at killing, they detested violence.
“If we move quickly, we may be able to reach the forest. Whether that is safe I cannot say.”
“We go,” Pral stated firmly.
The group quickly turned east, preparing for a long run to the trees. Before they could take fifteen paces, however, Hosus motioned everyone to the ground. They immediately dropped to the grass in a small hollow.
Long moments passed in tense silence, but soon the stomp of hundreds of boots could be heard close by. Phanza peered over the top of the hillock and looked across at several hundred armored humans marching past. He quickly counted the number of soldiers in a row and the number of rows that passed in seconds.
He counted approximately nine hundred soldiers passing their small hideout. He whispered this number to Pral, who nodded grimly.
“Apparently, they received reinforcements during the night. A battle is soon to come. We must be away before it does,” Pral whispered back.
Pral then turned to Hosus and, using hand signs, told her to follow the rearguard of the human force for ten minutes, then follow them into the trees.
Hosus nodded, and slipped quietly into the high grass to await the rearguard. Phanza muttered a quick protective spell over her before she departed, one that would deflect small blades. She would have to protect herself from anything larger than a dirk.
As soon as the rearguard had passed their niche, which was another five minutes, the twins led everyone at a hunched sprint across the grassland. They stopped every few minutes to let everyone catch their breath and stretch their quivering muscles.
The group ran three miles before the grass turned green and the ground became uneven with the roots of the old giants of the forest. It was another quarter of a mile before they were among the trunks that provided them safety.
Bertran collapsed on the ground in exhaustion, gasping for breath. The others gripped trees to hold themselves up, for their quivering legs could barely hold them. Even the invulnerable Pral was breathing heavily.
Several minutes passed in which the only sound to disturb the silent forest was everyone sucking in air. Sounds of battle clashed in the distance, and soon a giant cloud of dust and vultures marked its location.
More minutes passed, and Hosus had not yet appeared. Bertran started mumbling to himself about going after her. Phanza inwardly agreed that it would be prudent to start searching for her, but he knew Pral would never authorize such an action.
A cool breeze rustled the leaves around them, and the warriors never heard the stealthy footsteps of the approaching soldiers. Suddenly, Hosus came crashing through a bush. Her startling appearance immediately caused blades to be drawn and arrows nocked before they saw who it was.
“We must leave!” gasped Hosus.
Pral wasted no time asking questions. He did not even bother to disguise their presence in the forest before everyone was once again jogging through the trees. Bertran handed his sword to Pral and scooped Hosus onto his back.
Before she could complain, Bertran grumbled protectively, “Do not scold me, nor complain. You are lighter than my sword and you can hardly walk.”
Hosus gave him a tight-lipped scowl, but finally nodded. Bertran smiled slightly to himself when he felt Hosus grip him tighter.
At a light jog, the group ran in two columns, three in each. Pral and Bertran led, and Hosus recited her sights from Bertran’s back.
“I followed the rearguard for ten minutes, like you said,” she began. “Before I could get away though, they were ambushed by Slandra. There were only a couple of the snakes but they had the advantage. Anyway, I was stuck between them and the human fighters, so I joined the humans.”
“Obviously,” chuckled Bertran.
“The Slandra caught them in a vise,” continued Hosus. “Though their force was smaller, they had the advantage of surprise and a two-pronged attack. Many of the humans were killed before they could unsheathe their weapons. The battle was over quickly, and the humans retreated even without a counterattack. I managed to outrun them to these woods, but they are close.”
Pral looked back at the twins and made a chopping motion, ordering them to dispatch any followers. Being the two smallest, they would be least likely to be discovered. Hosus would have been the first choice, but her current exhaustion prevented that.
Glyc and Wenley halted and stepped off the trail, melting into the foliage. They would follow when they could no longer hear their companions. The group quickly pulled away from the lurking archers.
“I’ll bet you five gold pieces no one comes,” Glyc whispered from the left side of the trail.
“You’re on, brother. I don’t trust our luck today,” Wenley replied.