The night passed by without any incidents, though William was aware of the sounds of the patrols being made throughout the village. They seemed to be very intense, as if preparing for war. The rays of the morning sun broke through the window, rousing William from his sleep.
William rose, and stretched. He got dressed, and did some callisthenics to get his blood pumping and mind alert. He then sat, cross-legged, and opened his spellbook on the floor. Calling upon the lessons his mother had taught him, he focused his attention on the tendrils of mana flowing about him. The patterns of the power over the minds of men came to him, and embedded themselves in his mind.
After finishing, William focused inward. He reviewed his options, and reaffirmed that his decision from the night before was the best of them. Finally, he stood and headed downstairs.
As William stepped down the stairs, he saw two very familiar figures sitting at a table. Brono and Carmine seemed to be packing up their belongings. Vernon rose from his bench as he saw William come down. Vornuna arose after her brother.
William’s eyes widened. “What are you two doing here?” he asked.
“My friend – no way am I going to let you be alone in these times of danger! I understand what you were trying to do, but I have decided that my loyalty to you is the lesser of the evils I have to face. Men may call me one who did not abide by his word, but I know the truth in mine heart. I am standing by a friend of mine, and they will speak of this, if not more!” Vernon’s words flared with a fiery passion, almost like an oratorical.
Vornuna smiled and shook her head, “I guess if he could not be convinced by you of your sorceries, I could not do anything too. But after hearing from the Sheriff yesterday, I would think you just might have the better ideas. So, we are with you, William.”
William could not help smiling. “Really? That’s great! But Vernon…” William frowned.
Brono looked up briefly at William as he walked down. He paused for a while with his packing, and called out to William, “Mr X! Thank you for dealing with those thugs, and rescuing my daughter. I am only a humble innkeeper, and I do not have much with me – please accept a meal from me before I leave. And no, you will not need to pay for your lodgings of the night before.”
He tried to smile, wrinkling the bandage covering the top of his head a little. Carmine just quietly packed her clothes, without looking at anyone. Her eyes were puffed up – she had been doing a lot of crying indeed.
William nodded. “Thank you, Brono… I appreciate everything you’ve done…” Will glanced at Carmine. “Where are you going?”
Brono gazed about the surroundings, the furniture about the inn, with a sad expression in his eyes. He looked back at William, and said, “News travel fast in the village, Mr X. The movement of soldiers in the village means the deal is probably off. There is no way the village can hold out against the brigands in the forests.”
William shook his head. They could if every member raised sword and pitchfork and club to fight them off, he thought. But that would require strong leadership, and a belief in themselves. Something that’s lacking here in Langando.
Brono looked at Carmine, and stroking her hair in a fatherly way, continued, “Carmine had suffered enough here, and I feel bad that I cannot protect her like a father should, Mr X. The least I can do for her right now is to bring her to a safer place. I have had some customers who offered me a job as a manager in their inns in the cities. Perhaps there we can start anew.” William could still feel the longing in his heart for the tavern that Brono probably invested much of his life in.
“Don’t worry so much, my friend,” William said with a smile, “Things will get better here, and you will return one day. Probably sooner than you think.”
Brono looked back at William again, and spoke, “Once again I thank you for coming to our aid, Mr X. We are forever in your debt.” He paused a while, as if thinking of something, before continuing, sounding a little worried, “Mr X. I would suggest you leave the village as soon as possible too. I cannot tell when the brigands will attack. We will be leaving in another half an hour, once our packing is done. Would you like to come with us?”
William’s eyes narrowed, and he shook his head. “No,” He said, “My business here is not yet finished.” Will reached out and shook Brono’s hand. “But again, you have my thanks. Good luck, and make sure to check back here in the near future. Things will be different, I promise.”
William turned from Brono and walked up to Vernon and Vornuna. “I still can’t believe you two are with me on this,” He said, looking at Vornuna earnestly and shaking his head slightly. “My magicks are still in play… or I should say, WERE in play.”
With the speed of a cobra, William lashed out and slapped Vernon across the face with a resounding SMACK!
“What the…” Vernon reeled in shock from the slap. He had instinctively raised his hand to try to block it, but William was too fast. Vornuna looked shocked too, and she spoke, “William, what was that for?”
But William did not have the chance to answer her, for Vernon bellowed, “Nobody insults a warrior of the northern lands! I say, nobody!” There was anger in his eyes, and he took a step towards William. He shouted, “Yes, I can remember now…a manner of power that touched my mind. Yes, so it is true – you did ensorcel me!” He growled dangerously, his hand on his weapon.
“Yes, it’s true,” William said calmly. “I’m sorry, but attacking you was the only way I knew to break the ensorcelment.
“I did so because I will not bring either of you into danger against your own free will,” William said. “Vernon, I consider you my friend, and I beg your forgiveness for ensorcelling you as I did. Please believe that I only did it to protect myself, and not to gain an advantage over you. You are free now, and I promise you I will never do such again.”
William stepped back, hands at his sides. “So,” He said, “Now that we know what we know… Are you with me, or aren’t you?”
It was obvious that Vernon was not listening. He roared out, “Nobody, and I say nobody, insults a warrior of the northern lands!” He charged at William, fists poised to punch the daylights out of him.
Vornuna screamed out, “Stop it, Vernon!” She tried to grab hold of him, to stop him from hitting William. Brono and Carmine were by now huddled in one corner, Carmine sobbing again.
William shook his head. “No! Vernon is right!” Will barked, “I attacked his mind when he was unaware. He has every right to be angry, and to seek retribution.”
William beckoned with his hands. “Come, my friend,” He said to Vernon, “I admit that I have wronged you. Exact…” William stood there expectantly.
William did not finish his words, for the big behemoth of a man had smashed his fist into his face. The force of the blow was so strong that it penetrated through the spell of protection he had erected about himself. Sparks flew and a loud clap of thunder resounded about the inn once again as it did the day before. For a moment it seemed his world turned a little dark, as William reeled from the force of the blow.
Vernon slipped free of Vornuna’s hold easily enough, and he pushed her away. “Come over and fight me like a man!” He roared, pointing his finger at William, “Or do you want me never to avenge my insult? Do you insult me further by refusing to fight me!”
Vornuna screamed out, “By the light of the Eternal One, Vernon – keep a grip on yourself! How would you help the Sheriff by killing William?” Vernon stared at Vornuna, his hands still clenched into fists, and he stared again at William. There was still anger in his eyes.
“Stay back, Vornuna… Honour must be fought for and satisfied, else it means nothing,” William growled, rubbing his jaw. He waited a split second, then launched himself at Vernon.
“You want some?” He cried, “You got some!”
Vornuna rolled her eyes, shaking her head and saying to herself, “Men!” She retreated and sat down on a bench.
William’s punch went wild, missing the burly warrior without him needing to evade. William ducked a punch thrown in return. Both of them threw a punch at each other, which connected – fist to fist! William grimaced in pain as the warrior grinned. Seeing his chance, William moved suddenly, catching him unaware – landing a punch on the kidney. The warrior looked unfazed, and landed a quick right on William’s chest. Again, sparks flew with a loud clap as William’s magical protection stood its ground.
Vernon’s eyes narrowed as he circled about William. He shouted, “So you use your sorcery in this fight! Just as well – you, a sorcerer, have your protection of magic. I, a warrior of the north, have my protection of steel! This morning, steel shall triumph over magic!”
“Oh, so you need steel to kick my scrawny ass?” William snarled, again launching himself at Vernon. “And I thought warriors from the north were tough…”
Vernon shouted out with a grin, “Nay – just being fair, William. You drop your sorcery, and I will drop my steel!” His words were stopped short by a jab from William to his jaw. He shook his head, a little dazed from William’s punch – his punch went wild, missing William by at least a mile. William was a little faster, and returned a jab at Vernon, who blocked his punch, and smashed his fist into William with a mighty haymaker.
A flash of light and plenty of darkness was the last William remembered. He awoke to see a disgusted face looking at him, and dabbing him on the face with a piece of cloth filled with something hot and smelly. It was Vornuna. She shook her head in disgust as the pain from the bruise affected William, making him wince a little. She looked reproachingly at William and said, “You boys are always itching for a fight – and in the end I have to be the one who tends to you!”
“What can I say?” William said with a grin, “We’re incorrigible.”
Vernon was sitting on a bench, grinning to himself, holding on to the same piece of cloth with the smelly stuff. His eyes sparkled of one who had won a fight and he walked over, extending his hand to William, saying, “You sure are a good fighter, William! One of these days, we will fight – I without my steel, you without your sorcery!”
William suddenly realised that the magical protection about him was gone. It must have been breached by the warrior during the fight.
William shook Vernon’s hand. “I hope you’re happy, you big lug,” Will said, “You knocked down my Armour spell! Now I have to wait until tomorrow to put on a new one…”
The blank look on Vernon’s face told William that he probably did not know what he was trying to say.
“Lena can’t wait until tomorrow, though,” Will said with a frown, “Did the Sheriff have a plan to rescue her? Or contact Naruyama?”
“A lot happened last night while you were gone, William.” Vornuna said, handling the piece of cloth to William, and motioning for him to apply it to his bruises. William’s body was beginning to ache all over, and the areas where Vernon had punched him hurt very much – almost like broken bones.
Dammit! William thought angrily. You weren’t supposed to hurt me this bad, you idiot! Will hated it when things didn’t go according to plan. A while later, a numbing feeling came about through his bruises, and he felt much better. Vornuna definitely was good in the healing arts.
“Yes, I hear that the Sheriff had managed to force a confession from the captured prisoners as to the route to the hideout. He was still angry with us though, and refused to speak to us concerning this.” Vernon shrugged his shoulders, wincing a little as the piece of cloth seemed to soak into a part that hurt.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” William exclaimed, “He interrogated one of Foldori’s flunkies? So he heard what Foldori wanted him to hear…”
“I think the Sheriff is preparing to attack the hideout,” Vornuna said with a worried look on her face, “The soldiers seemed to be getting ready to move out when we left his place this morning. The Lieutenant was the one who told us to leave – apparently the Sheriff doesn’t want us about.”
William frowned. “Hmm…Not a good thing,” He muttered, “Still, I suppose Lena will be safe enough with Foldori, who will keep her safe for use as a hostage should the Sheriff’s forces prove victorious. If Naruyama’s forces win…Well, we’ll get her back before that happens, but we’ve got to move fast.”
“All right, here’s what I was thinking,” William said, “We need to isolate some of Foldori’s men, no more than 3. There’s got to be SOME of his men running around… I’ll use my magicks to charm one of them, and we’ll have to dispatch any others. Once we have an ‘inside man’, we get him to take us to the bandit’s home ground. On the way, he details for us all defences, guard schemes, personnel deployment, and planned strategies.”
“When we arrive, we penetrate and find Lena,” William said, “This can be done in a number of ways, but I won’t know which is the best way until I know what we’re up against.
“What do you think?”
“It is a good idea, William, but where are we going to start? We cannot go about asking everybody in the village whether they are Foldori’s men, and the prisoners are with the soldiers, from what I understand.” Vornuna said.
“Yes, well…” William’s eyes flicked to Carmine.
“But I fear one thing, William – if truly you suspect that Foldori has asked his captured men to give the information to the Sheriff, then they might be going into an ambush!” Vornuna said worriedly. Vernon stood up immediately and flung down his medicinal smelling cloth on the ground.
“Then what are we waiting for? The Sheriff needs us, and we should be gloriously fighting Foldori’s men! Yes, they shall taste the bite of cold steel!” He shouted gleefully, drawing his weapon and waving it about in the air. William could see Carmine clutch her father’s arm in fear as Vernon drew his weapon.
“Whoa, there, big fella!” William said, holding up a hand, “A little consideration for the ladies, please!”
“Now I appreciate your enthusiasm, but failing to plan is planning to fail,” William said, “Let’s make sure we know what we’re doing before bashing heads.”
William turned his gaze back to Vornuna, “Anyway, I’d recognise any of Foldori’s men that I saw earlier, if I saw him again. We’ll have to keep our eyes open, and maybe others will reveal themselves.”
Will stepped close to Vornuna, and spoke softly, “It occurs to me that Carmine and Brono have dealt with Foldori’s men many times. Perhaps they can point us in the right direction. Would you mind asking? You have a gentler touch than I…”
Vornuna nodded, and smiled at Carmine, who tried to smile back at her. Now that Vernon had sheepishly sheathed his weapon, the girl seemed more relaxed.
William stepped back, “As far as ambush, that’s always a danger. The sheriff is a military man–I presume he can anticipate such situations better than we can. In any case, I don’t see Foldori interested in an ambush–he needs both sides to wipe each other out, not one side destroying the other.”
“Right now,” William said, “I’m mostly concerned with finding Lena, and getting her out of the danger zone. I’ll address this little power struggle at a later time.”
“Hmm…but what if Foldori set the whole thing up such that Naruyama thought he was setting up an ambush, but the Sheriff was actually warned beforehand?” Vernon seemed to have a bright spark up there, and he spoke excitedly.
“That might do it,” William admitted, “But to be honest, I’m not particularly concerned about stopping any battle between these guys. They’re all brigands to me, even though the Sheriff’s men wear badges. The best thing for this village would be for the King’s soldiers to sweep through here like a cleansing flame, ridding poor Langando of both the criminal element AND the corrupt government.”
“Stupid men will always kill each other,” William said, eyes fierce, “I only get involved when innocents are threatened. In this situation, I only care about getting Lena to safety, and freeing this village from this hellish existence. What happens to Naruyama, Foldori, or the Sheriff doesn’t mean a damned thing to me.”
Vornuna smiled. It was a gentle, almost motherly smile, though quite unlike those of his mother. He remembered his mother only smiled when he did something impressive in the magical arts (and she would boast about it for weeks).
William felt a little uncomfortable with these impressions. It felt strange for someone to display such affection towards him–it was not like the smitten stares he was used to.
Vornuna said, “William, I understand you care a lot about this Lena, and the village. I do not know Lena well, but like all children, I am sure she does care a lot about what happens to her father. I for one would like to see him safe, together with the village.”
“I understand,” William said, nodding, “And I agree, to an extent. I will certainly save as many lives as I can, even that of the Sheriff. But one must set priorities.”
“Mr Vernon, Miss Vornuna, Mr X,” It was the voice of Brono, speaking hesitantly, “I really have to be away, but perhaps I can help in whatever little way I can.”
“Anything would be greatly appreciated, Brono,” William said earnestly.
He paused for a while in thought, and continued, “I know of one strange man living in the forests. He never seemed to have any problems with the brigands, and I have seen him once in the inn. Nobody knows his name, and everybody calls him ‘Old Ben’. A jolly little fellow too, though he does not talk much about himself. Perhaps he knows of a way to stay out of sight of the brigand’s patrols in the forests. The problem is, nobody knows where in the forest he is, but he may just be an invaluable ally.”
Interesting, Will thought. Druid? Ranger? In either case, perhaps the animals will tell him we’re looking for him, once we get to the forest.
He looked sheepishly at the party, and said, “I know this is not of much help. Maybe this may – one of our villagers did not return from a foray to an area of the forest about two miles from the entrance of the village. He was looking for some rare mushrooms he had seen growing. If he had been attacked by the brigands, perhaps that might be a clue as to the brigands’ hideout.”
“That’s a great lead, Brono!” William exclaimed, “Can you give us rough directions to this place, or maybe draw a crude map?” Brono nodded and began scribbling something on a piece of parchment. He handed it over to William.
Brono sighed and looked at Carmine again, before returning his gaze back to the adventurers, “Carmine really had a bad time with the brigands. I really hope the new place can make her forget all that had happened during the past weeks. Perhaps there too, I may find a husband for her, to give her something to look forward to.” He smiled at the red-faced Carmine.
“I’m sure life will be better for you soon,” William said with a warm smile, “And, the gods willing, you’ll soon be able to return home, if you wish.”
Brono nodded, suddenly carrying a determined look on his face, “Well – we have to be off, Mr X. I know I probably cannot talk you out of any thoughts you have about taking on the brigands, but I really hope you know what you are doing. It is going to be crazy to do something like that. I thank you once again, brave adventurers. May Mystari shine upon you. Now if you permit me, I would like to lock up the inn before I leave.” Brono smiled at the party before him.
“Sure thing, Brono,” William said, “Thanks again.”
Will stepped outside of the Inn, followed by Vernon and Vornuna. He looked at them, “Well, why don’t we see what we can find near that mysterious mushroom grove? And once we enter the forest, perhaps we can find ‘Old Ben’.”
“And we are going to just leave the Sheriff’s men as it is? And the village? What if Foldori’s men sweep down while the troops are away? I am not too sure, William – I would think you have the better ideas, but why should we be gallivanting at the mushroom grove when other events await us?” Vornuna said, eyeing William.
William raised a hand. “First of all, enough of this ‘I think you have the better ideas’ stuff,” He said, “I make my share of mistakes, and you’re right to question me if you think my ideas are shaky. I’m always happy to explain my reasoning, and alter my judgement if presented with a stronger argument.”
“Regarding this situation, I feel it’s better to take the offensive than to continue reacting to Foldori’s machinations,” William continued, “We are but three people, and will affect little change in a battlefield situation. Nor can we stand against the might of Foldori’s forces if they sweep down on the village–hell, last time we barely held our own against Foldori and his two flunkies.”
“We can be most effective by exploiting our single advantage–our wild card status,” Will said, his demeanour becoming ever more logical and precise, “Foldori cannot have figured us into his plans, nor can he have counted on my magic. We must use that to find the key to victory.”
“That is why I feel we should chase down Brono’s lead, even though it’s uncertain it will pan out,” William said, “Staying here or arguing with the Sheriff gains us nothing, but checking out Brono’s story could gain us everything. It’s worth taking a chance.”
“I also am confident that we can garner the attention of this ‘Old Ben’, and he may be able to help us,” William said, “So that’s another incentive to range into the forest. But the important thing is for us to make contact with one of Foldori’s men, so we can Charm one to our side. We’ll need some inside intelligence if we’re to have any chance of pulling off an effective rescue.”
Vernon walked next to William, and patted him on the shoulder, before saying to Vornuna, “Aye, sister, I’ll rather go hunting for them than wait for an ambush any day! You think too much sometimes! I say we go to the mushrooms and go hunting for brigand scalps!” He laughed and flexed his muscles.
William laughed. “Yeah,” He said, “What he said.”
Vornuna looked first at Vernon, then at William, then sighed and said, “I guess you men stick together. But we must be careful – the woods can be treacherous even without the brigands.”
Chapter 8: Towards the Woods
William studied the map for a few seconds, then looked at Vernon and Vornuna. “All right,” He said, “I say we walk about 20′ off the road–no sense in presenting ourselves for ambush. I’ll take the point, walking about 30′ ahead of the two of you. Keep an eye out for movement–either soldiers or animals. No talking, so we can keep our ears involved also.”
“Along the way, we’ll work on silent commands so we can communicate in stealth mode,” William continued. “If I make contact, you two cover me while I try to talk to whoever it is. If there’s danger, you two will have to pull me out of the fire.”
“Any questions or comments?” Will asked, “Fill me in on the way. Let’s move…”
The walk to the mushroom grove took nearly two hours – the party had to constantly watch over their shoulders, careful of lurking dangers. Walking off the beaten track was particularly difficult, and William had to find himself slowing down to match Vernon’s gait. His chain-mail armour was also making noises enough to scare off woodland animals. If they were going to have any measure of surprise, either William would have to place himself further away, or Vernon would have to take off his armour…something William was not too sure he would want to do.
William was aware of the small little animals along the way – the squirrel, harmless grass snakes, and rabbits that inhabit the woodlands. He whispered to them many a times, to tell Ben they were looking for him. The animals that seemed to hear him must have thought him stupid though, since they just gazed a while before disappearing into the undergrowth.
William shrugged. I feel like an idiot, he thought, talking to birds like this, but no harm in trying.
The day was quite clear, and William could see off to the distance of about 400 yards, a patch of purplish-green growth off the side of the trail. That could be the mushroom grove. He could hear Vernon grunt as the links of his armour caught another outlying branch, pulling him back a little.
William gave the signal to “hold”, and scanned the area with his full array of senses, searching for danger or ambush. Satisfied, he then returned to Vernon and Vornuna.
“I think we’re finally here,” He said with a grin, “Vernon, why don’t you and I explore the grove? Vornuna, would you mind keeping an eye on us from some hidden vantage point nearby? The grove is a potential ambush site, as well, so we should designate some backup…”
Will looked at Vernon, “C’mon, let’s check it out…”
Vornuna smiled and her eyes lit up a little when she saw the mushroom grove as well. She said to Will and Vernon, “Why don’t you two keep an eye on me while I explore the grove? These mushrooms look interesting to me. I think they have some cosmetic properties.”
“No way, sister! Hey, this place is dangerous, and we men should be the ones taking care of the dangers here!” Vernon said, shaking his head.
Vornuna sighed. It seemed like that had been going on between the siblings for some time. She replied, “My dear brother, do you know mushrooms as well as I? Perhaps not, but you could probably protect me better than I could protect you!” It was a nice disarming choice of words that left Vernon speechless. He looked towards William for support.
“Both of you go,” William said, “I’ll cover you with my bow. Vornuna, let me know if you see anything out of the ordinary. Be careful about stepping into any mushroom rings – legend says such circles have power in nature.” Vornuna nodded and gave a warm smile to William. This time it was devoid of maternal feelings. More like something else…
Will unslinged his bow, and nocked an arrow. “Are you ready?”
Vernon nodded, and drew his weapon. Both of them cautiously moved towards the clearing. William could see that Vornuna was very happy to see the mushrooms. Gingerly she stepped towards the clearing, taking care to stay just outside of the patch of mushrooms. She picked one up and looked at it. Smiling happily, she continued to pluck a few more to place inside her pouch.
William could see that Vernon was getting a little bored just hanging about the clearing. But he was still keeping his eyes opened and alert. William was aware of the sounds of the birds chirping and the trees and grass rustling gently in the breeze. The breeze blew across Vornuna’s hair, showing off her beautiful neck and ear. The sounds of the woods were sweet and wonderful, and faint laughter could be heard inside the woods. A faint male sadistic laughter.
William frowned, and hunkered down in his little hiding place from where he’s covering Vernon and Vornuna. I’m sure they hear it too, William thought. Better stay here out of sight. Hopefully this guy is someone my Charm spell or my bow can handle.
Vernon and Vornuna did not seem to have heard the sound. William did not hear it again, but judging from the sound of it, it was coming from his left, deep inside the woods. William pulled his sword, and flashes the sun into Vernon’s eyes. When he had commanded the big northerner’s attentions, Will made the hand signals for “Danger! 9 o’clock. Hold.”
Good thing we went over those silent commands on the way over, William thought. Moving silently, and using his hunter’s instincts, William stalked slowly towards the sound. He carried his bow in one hand, and an arrow in the other.
With an unearthly silence, that of a jungle cat, William made his way to the source of the sound. The foliage was many, but he was able to clear them without making too much noise. About 30 yards away, William stopped within the bushes as he came within sight of another clearing.
He saw two men. Both of them were dressed in simple clothes, and carried short swords. Relatively short and stocky, they looked like rough men. And they were laughing away, kicking at some kind of small animal. But William’s sharp senses noticed something.
It was no animal! It was a small little humanoid creature! Probably the size of a big rabbit, it was being kicked about mercilessly by the two men, probably playing some kind of sport with the little thing. Already, it was whimpering as the men kicked it. One of its wings was already broken, the other hung limp.
Damn! Will thought, can’t waste my spell, I’ll need it when we find one of Foldori’s men. These two might be with Foldori, but I can’t be sure. However, if we confront them, they may sound an alarm, and who the hell knows how many of them are hiding in the woods.
William tried to think, but the pathetic whimpering kept calling to his attention. Dammit, enough’s enough, he thought. William rose, an arrow nocked in his bow. He looked down the shaft at the two men.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” William said, “I wasn’t expecting to run into company, but I see I was mistaken. Please put your hands where I can see them, and introduce yourselves.”
The two men were taken aback by William’s words and stopped kicking the little creature. For a moment they stood looking first at William, then at each other. They seemed unsure of what to do, as they considered the situation they were in.
William clucked impatiently as he stared down his bow, “C’mon fellas…” Will said, “I said to introduce yourselves. Don’t do anything foolish–arrows tend to hurt quite a bit, and I won’t miss from this range. My friends and I need some answers, and you fellas are gonna have to supply them…”
“Who are you?” William asked, “Why are you abusing that creature? What the hell are you doing way out here in the middle of nowhere?”
One of the men on William’s left shouted, “Go!” They immediately split off into two directions, heading for the undergrowth, where they could get some cover.
Will sighed as he observed the men closely — it was obvious they were going to bolt. William plunked the larger man with an arrow. The arrow flew straight and true, striking the man in the upper shoulder, making him cry out in pain. But he still ran on. William drew another arrow and let it fly, this time striking on the upper arm. And still he ran on. The third arrow flew on – this time it sank into the back of the man, and he fell onto the floor, a pool of blood rapidly forming.
“Vornuna, Vernon, get over here!” William cried as he ran after the smaller man, “We’ve got a wounded innocent, and two bad guys!” A loud grunt from Vernon a distance away assured William that Vernon had heard him.
The woods were thick, making it difficult to shoot, or even to keep the man in sight, for that matter. He was fast, but William was dogged in his pursuit.
A blind man could follow this trail, William thought, not concerning himself with the man’s distance. With his tracking skills, it did not matter if he could see him or not, nor did he concern himself with getting lost, as his own trail would be simple to backtrack.
After about two minutes of pursuit, William lost sight of the man. William suddenly realised he was in the midst of thick forestation, with tall trees and lush leaves hiding any potential enemy. Will halted, blended into a shadow, and listened. He stood stock still for two minutes.
From a distance, the sound of metallic links clinking against each other was heard. The sound was quite faint – Vernon should be quite a distance away.
William looked about his surroundings – there were many low overhanging branches, some of them strong enough to take his weight. None of them at this moment looked like they were hiding anyone but William could not tell. The sound of Vernon’s armour came nearer – any advantage of surprise he would have would be lost. But his prey, if he was still around the area, was not coming out.
William could have easily guessed why his prey was not coming out – Vernon saw him without too much difficulty, and waved to him, making a signal of “What happened?” with his hands. Anybody who saw Vernon would have realised William was in the area – who else could he have been signalling to? Hopefully, his prey would not notice Vernon, with his armour shining off the late morning sun filtering through the trees.
Enough, William thought. We’ve lost all chance of surprise. Time to head back. Will quickly moved away from his position, and motioned for Vernon to follow. Once the northern warrior was near enough, William said, “I lost him, I guess… I’m sure the bandit camp is near here, though. Let’s get back to Vornuna, and talk to that little bird guy. We’d be better off coming here later, when we have the element of surprise, and better info.”
Vernon gritted his teeth in anger, “Wait till I get my hands on him! This is getting ridiculous – all this wandering about for an enemy we cannot see. If only he had not run – Vernon would have crushed his skull!” The last bit was said with not a little bit of glee.
Will retraced his path, taking them back to the mushroom grove. Better take cover, just in case the bandits come after us in force, William thought. Once we reunite with Vornuna, moving into the forest a few tens of yards should be sufficient.
The heavy undergrowth parted easily enough for the Vernon and William to reach the mushroom grove without too much difficulty. William noticed Vornuna tending to the little creature, trying to apply the same foul-smelling herbal mixture to the little creature.
William also noticed the bandit, still unconscious and breathing weakly, with strips of cloth from his own shirt tying him in the areas William’s arrows had penetrated. Blood had soaked through the cloth, but his bleeding would be contained – he would not die.
“Criminy,” William said softly, “That’s one tough bandit. Not only did it take three arrows to bring him down, he’s STILL alive and kicking! Good thing for us, though. Maybe he’ll have something useful to say.”
Vornuna looked up at William and her brother as they came nearer. She gazed upon the creature with a kind of a concerned motherly look, and said to William, “His injuries are extensive, but he should feel better after a while.” She looked at William, and asked, “Do you know what he is? I have never seen such a creature of the woodlands before.”
From close, William could see that this was possibly another of the sylvan creatures – it had pointed ears, like what he heard about elves. The fact that it was so small and had wings, could very well mean it was one of the fairy folk.
William had heard his mother told him of these beautiful peace-loving creatures back when he was young. Reclusive in nature, they were said to frolic about in the deep forests, where no man could see or touch them. This one must had been careless to wander about so near to the outskirts of the forest. Or perhaps just youthful – its features seemed to suggest that, but William was not sure. He had heard that they always looked like children.
William shook his head, “Honestly, Vornuna, I’ve never encountered such a being before. But I’ve heard stories… I think he is one of the faerie folk. How is he doing? Will he regain consciousness soon, do you think?”
“Listen, we better find a hiding place, just in case that bandit returns with some friends,” Will said, “Let’s see if we can move our two wounded into the woods a little, so we’re not out in the open.”
Nodding, Vornuna cradled carefully the little creature in her hands, as one would a rabbit or a hamster. It winced a little in pain, still in a semi-conscious state. Vernon went over the injured man and took him up roughly over his shoulder, in a fireman lift. The man must have been in a really bad state, because there were no visible reaction from him over the rough and possibly painful handling.
Heading into the woods, the three tried to move a short distance away from the clearing. Vernon ducked his head to avoid a low tree trunk, muttering something as the blood from the man began to soak into his clothes. Kneeling down, Vernon dumped him unceremoniously into the ground.
“Be careful, you might just kill him!” Vornuna hissed, hurriedly moving over to bind up the bandages that had loosened from the rough handling, letting out blood again. Her skilful hands quickly stayed the fingers of death that crawled over him.
“I say we just forget about this guy, and go smash up this Foldori! Look – even if we want to question him, he probably is in no state to answer any questions. We are wasting our time.” Vernon replied as softly as he could. The links of his armour clinked again as he shifted his position a little for more comfort.
“I’d like to smash Foldori’s smug face myself,” William admitted, “But if we just go in without a plan, we’ll get captured lickety-split. We need to be careful, here, or we’ll never save Lena…”
William saw that Vornuna had the strange creature well cared for, so he turned his attention to the prisoner.
“He’s barely hanging on,” Will said. He tried to gently prod the man awake, without much success, “Hopefully, he’s got enough will left to want to live. If so, he may be willing to help us, since we’re the only ones who can save him.”
“How’s the little one doing?” Will said, glancing over his shoulder at Vornuna, “Coming around, at all?”
Vornuna nodded as she applied the smelly stuff over the creature’s wounds. The pong from that thing was just overbearing – any woodlands creature still around must have fled! It was an amusing thought indeed.
The little one seemed to rouse itself as the medication started to take effect. Its eyes opened and closed quickly as it cringed in terror upon the sight of the three humans looking at it. It whimpered in fright, moving up its arms to cover its face. The knees were moved to bring the legs up to its stomach.
“It’s OK, dear – we will not hurt you.” Vornuna said reassuringly as her hand moved towards it with the cloth filled with the healing herbs. The creature seemed to scream even more in terror, crawling away to a nearby tree-trunk in fright. It lay there trembling, not daring to look at the three humans before it.
Vornuna looked at Vernon and William, “It must have suffered a very terrible fright. I don’t know what I can do here right now. Vernon, perhaps if you put down your sword, it might feel better.” Vernon shrugged and sheathed his weapon. The creature whimpered, its eyes still tightly closed, waiting for the next blow to descend upon it.
“Come on, buddy,” William said soothingly, “You’re with friends now.”
Turning to Vernon and Vornuna, Will said, “I wonder if this fellow is an associate of Old Ben? If we can find him, maybe he can take care of this one…”
“I don’t know why you keep talking about this Old Ben guy, William. As if some wild hermit staying in the forests can help us deal with the bandits.” Vernon shrugged his shoulders, “I say we continue to the den, wherever it is, and smash up some skulls. Fighting is what we warriors are best at, not waiting here for some old man!”
Will sighed inwardly. How many ways can I say it diplomatically? He thought. But then Vornuna spoke up.
“We can’t leave the little creature here!” Vornuna’s eyes narrowed at the speech of her hot-headed brother. Sometimes she really wondered if his brains might have been in his arms rather than in his head. She shook her head and looked at the little creature again. She knelt down to the floor, making herself look somewhat smaller and less threatening to it.
“I’m not a warrior, Vernon,” William said. “I’m just a guy who has to fight sometimes. As little as possible, preferably.”
Will shrugged, “I want to talk to ‘Old Ben’ because if he is what I think, or hope, he is, he’ll know these woods better than anyone. Even the bandits. We’ll need that kind of edge going up against such superior numbers.”
The creature tried to crawl further away, but its back was already against the tree. William noticed that its eyes seemed to be upon the weapons they were carrying. It continued to whimper in fear.
“Tell you what, Vernon,” Will said. “Why don’t we go keep watch on the grove? Maybe those guys will come back looking for us, and we can ambush them. We can let Vornuna care for the little one…”
Vernon shrugged his shoulders and was about to move off when something seemed to burst out of the woods from the north. A noisy rustling sound was heard as a swarm of red ants the size of fingernails began to move towards the three of them. Their mandibles clicked menacingly as they advanced.
“Whoa! Killer ants!” Vernon’s eyes opened wide as he quickly turned towards William and Vornuna. Vornuna looked and quickly reached out her hand towards the creature, to bring it with her. Her hand was stopped short by three of these creatures that suddenly appeared from behind the tree, pointing miniature crossbows at her.
The three that apprehended her looked like bigger versions of the little creature cowering away by the tree. Elven features were apparent in them, and they were flying on wings that looked like they belonged to dragonflies Except that no dragonfly was one foot tall. Hovering at the level of her face, the crossbows seemed to be aiming for her eyes.
William sighed, threw down his bow, and unbuckled his belt sheath, allowing his sword to drop to the ground.
“Don’t do anything rash, Vernon,” William said, raising a hand. Turning to the strange little creatures, William smiled, “That goes for you three, also. It seems we have a little bit of a misunderstanding. We’re all friends, here… we defended this little one from his abusers.”
William pointed at the wounded bandit, “I found this one and another tormenting your friend… I brought him down with my bow, chased off his companion, and Vornuna here has been caring for the little one’s injuries.”
“I am called William X,” Will said, “My big friend is Vernon, and you already know the lady is called Vornuna. We come in peace.”
The swarm of ants continued its slow march towards the three of them. Vernon’s hands briefly grasped the hilt of his weapon. He seemed to be in thought for a moment, before shaking his head and dropping his weapon, still sheathed.
“I hope you know what you are doing, Vernon.” Vernon muttered to himself as he stepped further back, towards William, seeking to be as far away from the swarm of ants as possible.
Vornuna seemed to freeze for a moment, as she stared into the crossbows aimed at her eyes. She spoke as gently as she could, but William could detect a little quivering in her voice.
“Little ones, you must believe us. We meant no harm. Look – if you are a creature of the forests, you should know the cloth and the herbs on my right hand. These are healing salves. The little one needs the tending of a physician.”
The swarm halted about 10 feet away from the party. Vernon backed up till his back was to William’s and growled in a low voice, “I hope these little people know our language, Will. Otherwise we are dead for sure. Who knows how many of them are hiding in the woods?”
William whispered back, “There are universal languages, Vernon. I’ll be able to communicate with them. Don’t worry…”
Chapter 9: The Creatures of the Woods
Another two more of the little creatures appeared from the tree the injured one was crouching against. Looking cautiously at the party, they began to haul it up from the ground. They seemed to be female members of the creatures’ kind, and the injured one (from its size) should be one of the young. One of them began to speak in a soft kindly voice to the young. It was a beautiful voice, and the language, although unintelligible to William, sounded gentle and flowy.
The sounds coming from the clattering mandibles of the swarm were quite unnerving. It appeared to be the sounds of the angel of death, waiting to devour the party. The swarm seemed to be held back by something – the ants were eagerly trying to move forward, to devour all that lay in their path.
One of the female creatures flew nearer to Vornuna, and wrinkled its face when it encountered the smell of the herbs from Vornuna’s hand. It spoke in the same gentle language to one of the males flying about, crossbow still pointed at Vornuna.
The young one was crying on the shoulders of the female tending to it. In the same language, it spoke in pain-racked sobs, gesturing with its small fingers. William noticed it was pointing at the man lying on the ground, as well as the three of them.
While it was still speaking, another of these creatures, one somewhat bigger than the other five adults, emerged from the tree. One of the crossbow-armed creatures flew towards it and spoke calmly with it in their language.
The creature nodded its head, and turned to look – first at Vornuna, then at Vernon and William. It looked like it was the leader of the group, with seeming regal bearings. Its gaze fell upon William’s, and it spoke. The voice was steady and gentle, in the Common tongue.
“I would assume perhaps that you are the leader of this party? You would claim that the man lying on the floor was not one of your own? What would make us believe you, violators of the forest’s sanctity?”
William stepped forward, his voice calm, “I am not the leader, but perhaps you could call me first among equals. I will speak for us.”
“You should believe us because one of your experience can look into my eyes, and know I speak truth,” William said, “If you wish proof, I can only offer evidence comprised of logic. If it was not me that brought him down, who did? I’m the only one here with human sized arrows, which an examination of that man’s wounds will prove to be what brought him down. My blade, and that of my big friend Vernon, is clean and unused. And my pretty friend, Vornuna, was attempting to heal the little one, as evidenced by the healing herbs in her hands.”
“I am William X,” Will said, “We do not violate the sanctity of the forest, for it belongs to all who live and respect its creatures. We are here because bandits have kidnapped one of our friends, and we believe we can find them nearby.”
“May I ask who YOU are?” William said, “I have never encountered your kind, though I have heard stories in my travels…”
The little man listened patiently to William. His ears seemed to lift a little when he heard William mention about the man and the forest. When William had finished, the little man called for one of those flying. He seemed to speak out a command to the other, who simply nodded, and flew off cautiously to William’s and Vernon’s weapons.
The spokesman replied to William haughtily, “You have no right, human, to ask who we are. We have been the creatures of the forests, tending to its safety, and dwelling in peace. You are the ones who have violated the sanctity of the forests. You are the ones who have destroyed our homes, and forced us away. You have killed many of our kind. Years of destruction from you – and you dare speak as one who claims respect the sanctity of the forest?”
“Not so fast, partner,” William said, still smiling but raising an eyebrow, “You’re painting with an awfully broad brush, right there. We humans are a pretty diverse race, and I won’t deny that some of us act badly or even evilly. But some of us also act with honour. I would never judge you by the worst of your race. Please extend to us the same courtesy.”
He shook his head, and continued, “Look at the weapons you carry. Look at the metal all over the body of the big one!” He pointed to Vernon, “If you mean not to destroy the peace of the forests, then what is it? Why should we believe you?” Obviously, he had not been listening to what William was saying.
“We carry weapons to protect ourselves,” William said, “Both from other humans and also the dangers of the wild. Your men also carry weapons, for the same reasons, probably.”
“Listen,” William said, “We’re not here to start any trouble. We’re here to rescue one of our own who was kidnapped, probably by the same lawless bandits that have troubled you. Perhaps we could help each other in that respect, and I can show you that not all humans are selfish bastards.”
The creature who was examining the body of the fallen man called out something to the leader. He seemed to be communicating some kind of find with him. The leader nodded, and looked to William. Suddenly the two with crossbows who were aiming at Vornuna took aim at William.
“My underling will be taking an arrow from your quiver, to take a closer look. Besides those you see here, there are many more hidden in the bushes, aiming their bows at you. At any time I give the signal, more of us can appear again from the trees to aid us. Try anything foolish with him, and we will not hesitate to destroy you, filthy humankind.” There seemed to be a bite of venom at the last bit of the sentence.
William shook his head. “Will you listen to yourself? I’ve heard many stories of fairie-kind, but I’d never heard they were so willing and anxious to hate…”
William had remembered the legends and stories told of how Theophilia was a more beautiful place, with the many races living more or less in harmony with each other. He seemed to remember the records at the Institute of Arcane Studies mentioning that man’s arrival destroyed all that. The more superior mankind drove out many of these beautiful creatures in his hunger and lust for more power and territory.
The creature flew over from the man’s body to William’s quiver lying on the ground, near his feet. Staring cautiously at the towering form of William over him, and seeming to fear being crushed by his foot, he took out one arrow. William put his hands up harmlessly as his quiver was played with. The creature tried to fly with it, but was not able to. Still looking cautiously at William, and also giving a glance to the armoured form of Vernon near by, he pulled it over to the fallen man.
The female who was tending to the little one looked at Vornuna with interest. She spoke suddenly in Common, “You are a female of humankind? I understand you were the one who tended to my child?” The tone was definitely kinder and gentler than the one the leader had been using on William.
Vornuna nodded and answered, “Yes. I was the one. Please do believe us. We mean no harm to the little one. But the life of one of the little ones of our kind is in danger. She was probably caught by one of them.” She pointed at the man on the ground. The creature examining the man seemed to be comparing his wounds with William’s arrow.
The leader shook his head. He turned to William and spoke with obvious sarcasm, “Our weapons are only to defend ourselves from the humans, and from the goblins. We do not take the life of one of our kind. Only you creatures of the greatest evil would kill each other. Just like the goblins. The only difference is that you are bigger than them!” His eyes flashed with hatred.
“Perhaps you WOULD take the life of one of your kind,” William said, “If he were torturing and inflicting pain on innocents. Perhaps not–I am not familiar with your ways or whether you live with honour. But I have never stood for such things, be the oppressor of my race or not.”
William noticed that the swarm of ants had by now dispersed and had gone off into the forests from where they came from. He heard a snort from Vernon upon the words from the leader, “Hey – watch what you are saying, puny little fellow! We are men of honour here! We fight for honour, for justice, to rid the world of evil!”
The leader laughed. It was not the evil laughter of Foldori. But there was hatred and ridicule in the laughter. He looked at Vernon, then at William, and said, “For honour, for justice – to rid the world of evil? I say you are just looking for a chance to fight, to loot, to destroy! It is just an excuse! The Sprites do not enjoy fighting, neither do we spoil for one. But be warned, evil human! When forced, we will fight – and fight well we do!” There was a gleam of strong confidence in his speech.
“Looks to me like you don’t need to be forced,” William said. “You seem quite anxious to pick fights with humans, and think the worst of us. I’m sorry the worst qualities of my race are bringing out the worst qualities of your own.”
The leader’s eyes narrowed as the words of William stung him. He was about to give a retort when the sprite that was checking on the unconscious man flew over to him. He spoke in calm tones, in the same beautiful tongue. William remembered the books telling him that the tongues of the fairies were beautiful, and they had very little words to describe evil. But the author was only conjecturing – he himself had only one or two encounters with these folks too.
His eyes flashed with anger at the words of the man. He turned towards the party and said, “My friend here told me it is true that the injury is from an arrow of like manner to yours. There were no other injuries on him, and your weapons are clean, like you said. So we shall believe you. You are probably not the one who afflicted our little one. But you foul humans have encroached upon our land, and you shall die!”
There was a loud commanding voice that came out, “No!”
It was the female sprite who had spoken to Vornuna. The leader of the group turned his head angrily towards the spritess, “Chieftain’s daughter – they must die for their deeds! This is how we protect our way of life!”
“Enough of this!” The spritess waved her hand in a motion of dismissal, “These people have saved one of our little ones, and we cannot repay this kindness with evil. If you are not happy with my decision, you can bring it up to my father.”
It seemed to have escaped their minds that they were speaking in Common. One of the sprites whistled, and spoke something in their language. The two paused for a while, and continued their heated exchange in their own tongue.
William exchanges glances with Vernon and Vornuna. This isn’t going as I’d thought, he thought uneasily. These little creatures might actually attempt to kill us. Thank goodness they’re giving me a few seconds to plan…
William’s mind raced as he analysed the situation and what course of action would allow the best chance of survival if things turned physical. In seconds, it became obvious… We’ll have to take hostages… William thought reluctantly. It would be our only chance to escape. I’ll nail the Chieftain’s daughter, Vernon the squad leader… can’t count on Vornuna to follow orders immediately in this situation, so forget about her for the opening sequence. Not a good chance, but our best one. Damn, this could get ugly…
A loud whistle from off the clearing interrupted William’s thoughts. Just as quickly as they had come, the sprites immediately flew off.
The two spritesses had taken the little one with them, and flew into the tree. The others simply flew off into the dense forest growth, leaving only the party and the injured man around. Vernon gave a growl and leapt for his weapon lying on the floor.
William also dived for his sword and bow, and spoke with urgency in his voice. “Quickly, you two…” He said through clenched teeth, “The fairies are reacting to something, and it’s probably a pack of humans led by the one that got away from us. Find cover, try to stay hidden… Don’t attack unless things go bad or I give the word.”
William rolled behind a tree with enough brush at the base to conceal him. He nocked an arrow, and looked anxiously in the direction of the human camp, wherever that may be.
His ears picked up voices. Probably about two of them – rough and boorish voices. The voices came nearer and two men broke into the clearing. Their style of dressing – leather armour over green shirts and leggings – was similar to the first two that William came across. Perhaps the one that got away had warned them. William could not be sure if they were the only ones but it seemed likely that there were more of them searching the forests.
Their weaponry was somewhat different however. One was wielding a short sword and a buckler, in combat ready positions. A shortbow and a quiver of arrows were slung across his back. The other was armed similarly, except that an arrow was nocked to his shortbow, and his short sword and buckler hung at his waist.
The man with the shortbow saw the man lying on the ground and immediately went to his side, kneeling down to check on him. The other man’s eyes scanned the area constantly for threats. Their moves looked like they had been in the military or some armed fighting troop. If these were brigands, they were no ordinary ones.
William noted that, and nodded grimly. Naruyama was military–his men were well trained. Jackpot.
William could not see Vornuna and Vernon. They were probably like him, hidden in the thick undergrowth. He had not had the chance to see where they went, so fast did all them moved to find a place to hide. Hopefully Vernon’s armour did not give himself away again. It just made too much noise and had the annoying tendency to reflect light in unwanted places.
Quickly, William whispered words of power, and silently fulfilled the arcane gestures necessary to cast his spell. He focused his eyes upon the bowman, and attempted to ensorcel his mind. Again, the thrill and feelings of power engulfed him as his fingers felt the tendrils of mana in the air about him. Every magic-users’ joy and passion each and every time they manipulated the powers of their surroundings.
The man’s eyes seemed to close momentary and he gritted his teeth as the magical energies struck his mind. The struggles were brief as the forces of mana fought for control over his thinking faculties. It was over quickly, and his eyes returned to gazing upon the surroundings, like a watchman over his charge.
The other man spoke something to him, and he nodded, still pointing the arrows and scanning for signs of threats. The other man then sheathed his short sword, and picked up the wounded man on the ground, and set him upon his shoulders in a fireman lift.
With a movement as smooth as that of any accomplished bowman, William stood up from behind the thick shrubbery and fired, aiming for the one carrying the wounded. The ambush was quick and over before the other was able to react, the arrow flying straight and true, striking the man straight in the heart, penetrating his armour. The wounded man fell down to the ground with a sickening crunch, and his would-be-rescuer fell on top of him, hand clutching the arrow.
William shook his head, disappointed at causing the death of another. It was sometimes necessary, but never pleasant. Will did not dwell on the matter long–he quickly refocused on the situation at hand. He hoped the bowman was under his Charm, but he couldn’t be sure.
The bowman did not shoot at William, but it seemed his arrow was still pointed at him. He was about to say something when Vernon began screaming out some northern abuses and charged from his hiding place at the bowman. It seemed like he had forgotten about what William said, so excited was he to charge into battle. The bowman dropped his bow and arrow and drew his short sword in preparation for battle.
William sighed inwardly, and cursed. Dammit, Vernon, if you screw this up and make me waste my spell…Will ran forward and plunked an arrow into the ground several feet in front of Vernon, to get his attention. “Vernon, stop! Don’t attack him! Don’t attack him!”
William ran in between the docile brigand and the huge northerner, and tried to keep them apart. “This guy’s on OUR side…” Making sure his back was to the brigand, William winked broadly. But the momentum from Vernon was too much, and his eyes widened as he smashed into William instead. There were grunts and oaths issuing forth from Vernon as he struggled to get to his feet and retrieve his fallen weapon.
The other brigand meanwhile had gone over to William. He grabbed a bit of William’s vestment roughly and picked him up. There was anger in his eyes as he snarled, “What were you trying to do? You’ve just downed my comrade! If not for the fact that you are my friend, I would have run a sword through you!
“What the hell are YOU trying to do?” William retorted angrily, “Settle down.” He seemed to ignore William’s words – he seemed very angry.
“And you!” He shouted to Vernon, still struggling to get up, laying his short sword at his neck, “You are an intruder! If you value the connection between your head and the rest of the body, I suggest you stop reaching out for your weapon!
His eyes turned off Vernon momentarily, and returned to William. His sword blade was still at Vernon’s neck. He said angrily to William, “You also better had a very good explanation for what you just did! You may be my friend, but I cannot protect you and myself too when I have to answer before my chief!”
William could not see Vornuna. If she had come of hiding and was behind him, the brigand facing him should have seen her. It was a good thing the sister did not think like her brother. Hopefully she would continue staying in hiding.
His eyes drifted to Vernon. He looked at William and gave a wink as well. He seemed to be getting into the game at last. He shifted uncomfortably, eyeing the blade on his neck. He looked up again and spoke out, “Uh…I am also a friend of William’s…uh…does that make us friend as well? Uh…maybe you can take your sword off me…”
The brigand’s eyes flashed angrily as they returned to Vernon. He let go of William’s shirt and pressed his blade even closer to Vernon’s skin. He spoke in a threatening voice, “Forget it, intruder! I can’t even protect myself if I were to let my friend go, much less you!” He put his other hand to his mouth and gave a loud and sharp whistle that rang through the woods.
“Put your sword away,” William said. “The two of us have been wanting to talk to Naruyama any way.” He put an emphasis on the “two”, for Vornuna.
Come on, William thought desperately. Get that sword off Vernon’s neck.
The brigand seemed to hesitate a little at William’s words. If the spell worked, he would do what William asked him to. A brief moment seemed to pass, and it would seem like his spell had failed when suddenly the brigand let down his weapon. He turned to look at the man still bleeding away and stepped in to try to stop the flow of blood. Vernon took the chance to retrieve his weapon.
Damn, William thought. His whistling just ruined everything. Now his friends are on the way. If we’re captured, they’ll disarm us and they’re no guarantee Vornuna could follow us safely and undetected. Two bad choices, which is the lesser?
Making a snap decision, William took this chance to lift his bow and fired an arrow into his “friend”. William felt something wrong in the flight path of arrow as he released it. It plonked down just next to his ‘friend’ – the feathers falling down on the ground about him. They must have somehow dropped off during the release.
“Quickly, Vernon,” William cried, quickly nocking another arrow, “Take him down! Won’t be long before we’ve got company…” The arrow was released quickly, even as the victim ducked and twisted away. This time it found its mark. The arrow, fired at point blank range, sank deeply into the abdomen, buried all the way to the end of the shaft. The look of death fell quickly upon the brigand, and he collapsed to the floor.
William nodded as his arrow took the man down, then looked at Vernon. “Never mind, I got it,” he said with a grin, “Quick, back into the bushes. I’m out of tricks so let’s play this straight. We’ll ambush them if there are 5 or less, hide and retreat if 6 or more and meet back at the clearing in one hour.”
With that, William resumed hiding. He was somewhat concerned about his arrow, and even his spell did not seem to work right. Could the fairies be messing with him, somehow?
About a minute later, four men burst into the clearing from the north. They were dressed in the same manner as the other three that lay fallen on the ground. Again, they adopted the same careful stance, two men with shortbows readied to shoot, and two with shortswords drawn for battle. They were probably about ten to fifteen yards away from William.
William watched from hiding, and took a deep breath. Doesn’t feel right springing an ambush, Will thought with remorse, but our lives, and Lena’s life, are on the line. Just have to remember these men will kill us if given the chance.
William slowly and smoothly nocked his arrow and drew back the bowstring, after glancing at the fletchings. With deadly precision, he let fly at the closest bowman. The arrow flew straight and true, striking him upon the left shoulder. Before any of them could respond, William had let fly another arrow – this time it grazed his thigh, and landed in the bushes behind.
William coolly noted their reactions, and continued to smoothly draw, nock, and fire. His eyes narrowed as he chose his targets, aiming for the bowmen for now, but ready to switch to a charging swordsman.
However, William knew Vernon would come charging out at them any minute now. That would provide the necessary distraction for him to pick off the first three and then help Vernon with the hand to hand. William smiled. That is, if Vernon NEEDED the help, which didn’t seem likely.
“Ambush!” shouted the four men in unison, the sign of trained soldiers. They were fast, and William could not get a chance to aim off at them before they dived into the bushes. There were rustling sounds of movement in the thick underbrush.
Vernon, on the other hand, had charged out of the clearing the moment William’s arrows had begun to fly, only to find the men jumping into the bushes, and hiding themselves. Now that Vernon was the only one out in the open, he too halted and jumped into the nearest bushes as well.
William waited a while – the rustling sounds continued, getting softer. The brigands were moving away from the clearing! From some distance off, William heard the sound of a whistle, and the clinking sounds of Vernon close to him. Vornuna was probably still hidden, but there was nothing to betray her presence.
Quickly, William moved towards the direction of the clinking sounds of Vernon’s metal. “All right, time to cut our losses and start over. Let’s hightail it out of the area, try to circle around and avoid them. They may flood the area with troops, and we don’t want to be here if they do. I’ll try and cover our tracks, so they can’t follow too easily, but let’s move it!”
Vernon nodded and was about to move off when he seemed to remember something. He looked about him, then at William, before saying, “Hmm…you don’t happen to see Vornuna anywhere, William? I think she might still be about, but how do we get her to join us?”
Vernon quickly got out of the bushes, to the chagrin of William (who was trying to keep as low a profile as possible), and shouted, “Vornuna! Where are you! By the Eternal One, you had better come out now!”
If Vornuna had heard him, there was no response. William also could not hear any sounds of approaching troops too. It was quiet. Too quiet.