Before they left, Fael called Lia to talk in private.
“Please, be careful,” he said when they were alone. “If you find anything, blow the horn. I’ll be there right away.”
“You too,” she said, clasping his hand in hers, gently caressing it. “Please, be safe.”
Fael showed a sad smiled and touched her forehead with his.
“I hope no one finds anything,” he whispered to her.
“You’re not the only one.”
“I had planned to ask you to become one with me with I won the great hunt,” he said, trying to hold back his tears.
“What if I won?”
“Then I’d wait for you to ask me,” he said, smiling.
Lia chuckled. “Then after this is settled, let’s become one.”
“It’s a promise.”
Fael and Lia touched their noses, a sign of love, before joining their respective groups.
Please, let this be nothing, he prayed to his ancestors, clutching the spear that once belonged to his father.
But Fael’s pray was for naught.
Near the river that cut the Forest, they found the Raiders.
This can't be true… No one in his group had any reaction as they observed the invaders.
So many… they’re planning to invade the Kingdom again, he knew at once, the memories of ten years flooding his head.
His breathing became fast and shallow. He felt a cold numbness coursing through his body. This can’t be happening… not again…
“Fael…” one of his friends whispered.
But he showed no reaction. The woman shook the young man.
“Fael,” she said in a stronger voice. “What are we gonna do?”
“We… we need… to find out… their numbers…” Fael managed to say in a hoarse voice, not taking his eyes from the Sand-Crawlers.
Without a word, they nodded and went in different directions.
Fael stood where he was, observing the large foreigners marching in a closed formation.
Even if they were strong and deadly in the sand, their numbers shouldn’t make much difference in the Forest… But if they burn down everything like last time…
Time passed slowly as he waited for the numbers.
But when his friends returned, he couldn’t believe their news they brought.
“It can’t be,” Fael said in a heavy voice, his shoulders dropping.
“Even if it’s not as many as before, we can’t fight.”
“We’ll be wiped out this time.”
“Fael, what are we gonna do?”
“Nothing…We’ll do nothing,” he said, still not taking his eyes from the group.
Even from distance, he recognized the cloth masks they wore. It’s the same… even after ten years…
“What? We can’t just do nothing! Not when they’re invading our lands again,” the woman said in a hushed voice.
“Do what? We can’t fight them! Even in this Forest, we don’t have the numbers!”
“All it takes is for them to cut down or burn the trees and we’re lost…”
“Then what are we gonna do?”
But before Fael could answer, they all heard something that made their blood froze.
Two horns echoed through the forest.
Then, from another direction, two more. And two more.
“What…?” the woman let go of Fael, looking in the direction of the last horn. “More enemies…?”
“This isn’t the only group…?”
Fael felt to the ground, running both hands through his hair.
Lia… please, be okay, he thought.
Somewhere far in his mind, as he thought of the woman he loved, he realized there was something he had to do.
With great difficulty, he pulled the horn attached to his leather belt.
He took a deep breath and blew twice, as loud as he could.
The sound echoed through the forest once again.
After it died, there was only a heavy mood left.
“We… can’t fight,” he said, his mind still not working right.
Even so, he turned to the enemy.
They had stopped their marching.
Each one had their weapons raised, ready to fight off any attack.
“They can’t find the source of the horns,” the woman said, the relief plain in her voice.
“Then we still have a chance,” Fael said. He turned to his friends. “Two of us will stay here and watch them. The rest will go back and tell the elders the situation.”
“What do you think they decide?”
“Watch and wait… if the other groups of invaders are as large as this, there’s nothing we can do.”
It’s not our fight… they want to invade the Kingdom… if so, they’ll certainly send reinforcements, Fael told himself, feeling his stomach tightening.
The next days passed by slowly.
No one from the Forest Tribes managed to get any rest.
Everyone had a task to do. From collecting supplies to making weapons.
From the too old to those who had barely learned how to walk.
Fael and the others were in charge of watching the invaders.
He had barely gotten any sleep at all. But he, together with Lia, refused to take their eyes off the enemy.
From the other scout groups, they knew the Sand-Crawlers invading army was much larger than ten years ago.
Not only warriors this time. Old and young, men and women.
Everyone from the desert is here, Fael knew. Something must’ve happened in their lands…
But what could have been made no difference.
Even if they want to invade the Kingdom for a very long time, it makes no sense to bring those who couldn’t fight.
Then there’s a change they don’t plan to fight us… there’s no meaning in losing any fighting force right now…
So do they want to reserve their strength until the army arrives? Avoid a meanness fight? Last time they almost decimated us, but they over half their forces…
Days had passed, and Raiders had shown no signs of fighting. All they did was continue down the main path in the forest.
They know they’ve been found, Fael thought almost two weeks later. Not only the horns, they’re warriors. There’s no way they wouldn’t have noticed us for so long…
“Fael,” his friend whispered. “You must return to the village. You too, Lia”
“I can’t, I—”
“The elders are calling you,” he said, not looking Fael in the eyes. “It’s about the reinforcements from the Kingdom…”
Fael widened his eyes and stood up.
He glanced at the Sand-Dwellers once more before making his way back to the Tribe.
The moment he arrived, everyone turned to him.
Even if no one said anything, he knew there was something wrong. It was plain in their faces.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, looking those closest to him in the eyes. But they all avoided meeting his gaze.
“Fael,” the elder woman said in her grave voice. “The Kingdom won’t send anyone to help.”
Silence filled the clearing after those words.
Fael felt his throat going dry and his mind numb.
“Then…” he managed to say in a hoarse voice. “We’re…”
“Yes.” She closed her eyes to stop her tears. “We are on our own…”
For the first time in weeks, Fael didn’t feel desperate.
Instead, he felt the rage boiling inside him. All the anger and frustration at the situation made the words come out of him.
“Why won’t they send help? Aren’t we supposed to be of the same country? To live under the same king? Those are his enemies! Even if we’ve never seen him, we’re his people! It’s his people his enemy will kill!”
Everyone lowered their eyes. Everyone shared the same feeling.
Lia raced to his side, but even her touch made no difference to quell the man’s rage.
The elder woman turned to the messenger. “Tell Fael.”
“I-I delivered our plea,” he said in a trembling voice.
“So why won’t they help us?” Fael asked, trying not to dish out his feelings on the younger man.
He gulped and looked at the ground, too afraid to look Fael in the eyes.
“They… they said they were having trouble with other invasions too… Because of that, they couldn’t leave the cities unprotected… they could only move large armies when the enemies were close enough…”
“When they get close enough, we’ll be long dead!” Fael screamed, his voice echoing through the trees.
A heavy and dead silence filled the clearing.
“What are we gonna do…?” someone asked, breaking the silence after a long while.
“Elders! Fael! Lia!” a young girl came running. She halted before them, panting, and put her hands on the knees to catch her breath. “The Sand Crawlers…”
“What! Have they attacked?” Fael asked, almost shaking the girl.
“No… they… send… a message…” she took a deep breath. “They’re waving a white flag.”
“They don’t want to fight?”
“Then what they want?”
The people asked more and more questions no one there could answer.
Fael looked at the elders.
Then the old woman who helped raise him after his grandmother died nodded.
With Lia by his side, he ran back to the watching position.
All those who were fast enough went with him too.
“What are they doing…?” Fael asked, more to him than to those around him.
The group of Sand-Dwellers they had been watching still marched.
But they had changed their formation.
Now they walked in spear formation, with the warriors on the outer part to protect the inner people.
But those on the head of the formation, instead of a weapon, carried and waved a white flag.
“They’ve been doing this for a while now,” a boy who had been left in the watch informed them.
Fael understood right away.
“They want safe passage through the forest…”
They don’t plan to fight us…
“What are we gonna do?” Lia asked.
Fael never took his eyes from the flag, watching the head of the spear as the group moved on.
Despite the flags, the warriors on the outer part of the formation still carried their weapons.
But they’re making sure it’s pointed to the ground… could that be a sign of no confrontation to their people…?
“Fael…” Lia grabbed his hand, watching the invaders by his side.
Fael’s breathing becoming fast and shallow.
He knew what would happen if they allowed the Sand-Crawlers to pass freely through their forest.
The kingdom will brand us traitors for not fighting the sworn enemies of the King.
They’ll kill the leaders… Including me… But then the tragedy of ten years ago won’t happen again…
After a long time, the elders arrived. They already knew the situation.
“The other groups are doing the same thing,” one elder said.
She watched the flag for a long time before turned to the young man.
“We’re old. We don’t mind dying if it means the survival of the youngsters…”
She stopped talking, leaving the unspoken words in the air.
What about you?
Fael turned from the woman to the invaders.
“I don’t want to see my friend and loved ones dying… not again… not because of a fight that isn’t ours…”