Enemy troops spilled out of the bushes at the edge of the forest and into the clearing. Like Herad’s own men, they wore a rough collection of leather armor. Hatred filled eyes glared towards Saeter’s party from unshaven faces framed by long messy hair.
Those few that didn’t already have weapons in hand drew them. Swords hissed free from sheaths and one of them pulled a war axe from off his back.
“Don’t let the bloody vermin get away! Charge!” their leader ordered his minions.
Varhs immediately raised his bow to pick the man off, but Saeter put a hand on his shoulder and stopped him.
“Hold your fire until they get closer,” Saeter ordered the other scout. “I don’t want them to scatter just yet.”
Varhs did as he was told but he gave Saeter a doubtful look. The front ranks of the enemy contained over a dozen men and were closing in on them. They only had a few minutes until Werrick’s men caught up.
There were only four people in Saeter’s group, four and a half if you included Scamp. If you didn’t count Khita as a full person then you only had like three and a half, or something... Counting wasn’t Blacknail’s strongest skill.
Scamp was sticking close to his master’s heels and he looked terrified. His normally large eyes were huge as he gazed around nervously. He looked like he was going to run at the slightest provocation.
“Fine, but I hope your plan is a good one,” Varhs grunted at Saeter.
“So do I,” the grey haired scout replied sourly.
This didn’t make anyone feel better. Khita just looked puzzled, but Blacknail groaned and Varhs looked like someone had just slapped him across the face.
“Running away would be a lot safer than this,” the hobgoblin muttered to himself.
Sure, not all of them would survive if they ran, but he would. He was the fastest runner here by far. Also, killing everyone else would probably slow the enemy down enough for Saeter to escape.
“Hey, they’ve got bows of their own,” Khita suddenly interjected.
Everyone looked over to see three of the enemies nocking arrows to their bows. They stood back as the rest of their group advanced. The enemy fighters were getting uncomfortably close. The tall man with the war axe was leading the way and there was a wicked grin on his face.
“Perfect. This way,” Saeter told them as he turned away.
“Perfect? How is this situation anywhere near perfect?” Varhs remarked in exasperation.
Saeter didn’t reply. He immediately led the others towards a clump of tall bushes off to one side. Before they reached it though, there was a whistling sound and three arrows tore through the air towards them.
The first one was aimed too high but the others were more on target. One arrow zoomed a few feet wide of Varhs’ chest. The other flew through the group and passed right by Khita’s face before slamming into the ground with a thud.
The young redhead went completely still when she realized what had just happened. Slowly, the color drained from her face. She lifted a hand up to wipe her cheek and drops of blood appeared on her fingers. She stared in shock.
The arrow had grazed her and given her a shallow cut. If it had been an inch to the left she would have died.
“Don’t stand there. Get down, you idiot!” Varhs growled angrily as he pulled her toward the bushes.
Within seconds, they were all behind cover. Blacknail peered at suspiciously at the nearby bushes and the tree in the middle of them. When he didn’t detect anything off, his healthy paranoia then focused on all the men with swords coming to kill him.
His concentration was broken though, when Khita’s back pressed up against his side. What was she doing?
He turned around and saw the young woman trembling slightly beside him. She still looked more than a little pale. As he watched, she shuffled even closer up against him, and accidently jabbed him with her elbow. Blacknail winced as his ribs throbbed painfully. Ow, she was sure was bony.
Saeter noticed the young redhead’s behaviour and the hobgoblin’s confusion.
“She’s in shock. Comfort her!” he whispered.
“Why?” Blacknail asked in surprise. That didn’t sound like something he’d do.
“Because I said so...” his master hissed back. “...and she might slow us down.”
“I don’t mind doing it,” Varhs interjected hopefully.
The scout was crouched next to Blacknail on the opposite side from Khita. He had been keeping watch on the advancing bandits. Now he was staring at Khita with a thoughtful expresion, though. Saeter gave him a hard look that was completely devoid of amusement.
“Keep watch! You wanting to show off is what got us into this mess!” he hissed at the other scout.
Varhs looked reluctant and glowered at Blacknail for a second, but he turned back around. Blacknail had no idea why the man was angry at him! What had he done? This was obviously Khita’s fault!
“How do you comfort people?” the hobgoblin asked his master doubtfully.
“Tell her she’s safe,” Saeter answered.
“Would slapping her work?” he inquired. That would be quicker.
“No!” his master replied with an angry glare.
Blacknail sighed in annoyance and turned to look at Khita again. She was huddled up next to him. Gently, he reached around to hold her shoulder.
“You’re safe-ss now,” he told her as he patted her on the head reassuringly.
A good pat on the head always made him feel better. In fact, he kind of wanted one now. Why had he suddenly become the person that gave out pats instead of receiving them? When had that happened?
“Thanks, but I just needed to catch my breath, Blacknail. That’s all,” Khita replied with a forced smile. “Ha, I guess I’m lucky those arrows missed me.”
Her shivering had stopped but she still looked pale. Well, that was good enough. Blacknail quickly withdrew and took a step back from her.
“Your idea-ss of luck is different from mine,” Blacknail replied dryly. “If I was lucky-ss I wouldn’t be here with you.”
For some reason, that totally truthful statement earned him a glare from Saeter, but Khita just smiled. Her eyes looked a little wet.
“Ha, you remind me of my brother, Blacknail,” she told him. “You joke around just like him. You also look after people.”
“I’m better looking, though,” the hobgoblin commented.
He had obviously never met her dead brother but that didn’t matter. Humans were pink after all, and that was a really stupid color to be. Green was just a much better color all around.
The nearby bushes suddenly shook. Everyone flinched and ducked down low. A pair of arrows tore through the plants and slammed into the ground. Leaves were knocked loose and rained down over Blacknail and the others.
After making sure he hadn’t been shot, Blacknail turned and gave Scamp a kick. The startled goblin had tried to squeeze between him and Varhs, so he could use them as a meat shield.
“Why are we still sitting here?” Varhs asked urgently. “They’re almost upon us.”
Saeter got up and looked towards the mass of angry bandits stomping towards their hiding spot. He scrutinized them carefully, as he pulled out his own bow and nocked an arrow to it.
“Alright, now!” he ordered the other man. “Aim right towards their center.”
Immediately, both scouts rose and loosed their arrows. The shots skimmed through the air above the grass and slammed into the approaching enemies. Two of the men fell with shafts sticking from their chests.
Blacknail had pulled out his own sling as well, so that he could help. He spun it and his stone projectile was launched into the air a second later. It hit the arm of an advancing enemy and caused him to drop his sword.
“Bloody hells, you bastards!” someone screamed hoarsely.
“Get to cover but keep advancing. Spread out and surround them!” a tall blonde bandit who had been standing near the back yelled.
The other enemy bandits followed his orders. The mass of armed and dangerous looking men split up into smaller groups. A few of them kept coming forward but most headed off to the sides where they could find cover behind the nearby clumps of trees and bushes.
Before Saeter and Varhs could get another shot off, the enemy archers opened fire. The two scouts had to duck back out of sight as the arrows flew over their heads.
“Now what? They’re circling around,” Varhs asked as he crouched down low.
“Now we wait for a reaction,” Saeter replied.
“They are reacting! They’re running everywhere,” Varhs pointed out.
“I’m not talking about the men,” the older scout answered.
Suddenly, a sharp crashing noise filled the clearing. Something snapped and there was a hollow thud. Khita flinched and beside her Blacknail jumped slightly. However, the hobgoblin quickly grinned as screams of surprise and pain filled the air. It was music to his ears.
Saeter’s plan had actually worked! They most likely weren’t all going to die!
The enemies that had headed into the thickets to find cover were under attack, by the bushes themselves. The tallest of the nearby trees had reached out and slashed at several nearby bandits.
Familiar angry hissing reached Blacknail’s ears, as the trees transformed before his eyes into mimics. They looked angry too. The giant, spindly, insect like creatures tore into the bandits that had approached them with their many long clawed limbs.
Werrick’s men were too surprised to put up much of a fight. Even the bandits well away from the fighting had stopped moving and were gaping at their distressed allies. They didn’t seem to know what to do.
A few of the enemy soldiers started to retaliate, but their blades either missed the mimics’ flailing limps entirely or bounced off their hard carapace. One of the tree creatures grabbed a man and then tossed him violently aside. Leaves cascaded down as the mimic moved to smash aside a new target.
“Alright, now it’s time to run again,” Saeter informed his companions.
None of them argued with him. Almost instantly, they were all on their feet and headed away from the fight. The end of the clearing and the way back into the forest loomed ahead of them.
“What in all the hells are those?” Khita gasped in surprise. “Did you bring those trees to life?”
The young woman kept as close as possible to Blacknail as she ran. Which annoyed the hobgoblin. Her eyes were wide with surprise and more than a little excitement.
“No, they’re just beasts, mimics,” Saeter replied dryly as he ran.
“How did you know they were there?” Khita asked next.
“Obviously, I scouted this path out in advance,” the old scout told her.
“How did you know...” the redhead started to ask before Saeter cut her off.
“Stop asking me such stupid questions and run,” he growled at her.
Behind them, the sounds of battle continued. Someone screamed and there was a thrashing sound, like branches colliding.
Blacknail risked a look over his shoulder. None of the enemies were chasing Herad’s minions, and no arrows flew their way. The surviving thugs were backing away from the mimics, and the creatures were letting them.
Saeter’s party soon reached the far edge of the clearing. A wall of bushes and younger trees blocked their way.
“Are you sure there are no mimics here?” Varhs asked Saeter.
“There weren’t yesterday,” the old scout grumbled in reply before pushing his way through.
After a few tentative steps, everyone else quickly followed him back into the woods. The barrier of thin branches and greenery gave way to reveal a dark expanse of tree trunks under a shadowy canopy.
“Are we safe now?” Khita asked when they were all out of sight of the battle behind them.
“No, they’re not bloody idiots, girl,” Saeter told her scornfully. “They will have sent men around to cut us off.”
“Oh,” the young woman remarked unhappily.
“But you have a plan right?” Varhs asked. “Preferably something better than sitting in the middle of a bunch of mimics and hoping the enemy walks into them before we do!”
“Yes, we keep running,” Saeter told him.
Blackail hadn’t stopped. The hobgoblin ducked under a low branch as he continued jogging through the forest. He wasn’t stupid enough to think they were out of danger, even for a second.
The others were right behind him. It wasn’t like he was slowing his pace to keep an eye on them or anything. He just knew it would be dangerous to run ahead alone...
Rows of trees surrounded them on all sides. The ground was almost completely bare of anything but dark earth. Only a few short leafy plants and small ferns grew around the base of the thick smooth tree trunks.
The group was silent as they ran between the trees, until Khita spoke up.
“Um, There’s a...” she suddenly mumbled.
“Save your breath,” Varhs huffed from beside her.
“But there’s a dead guy right over there!” Khita shot back angrily.
Varhs’ eyes widened as he turned in the direction Khita was pointing. Both Saeter and Blacknail’s gaze quickly followed.
A human body lay strewn over a tangle of roots at the base of a tree. The cause of death was obvious. An arrow jutted out from his back and his brown scout’s cloak was red with blood. It was undoubtedly one of Herad’s men, although without getting a better smell Blacknail wasn’t sure exactly which.
“Shit,” Saeter swore. “They’re ahead of us.”
Both scout’s cloaks swished behind them as they turned to survey the surrounding woods. Blacknail’s gaze lingered on the fallen man’s corpse for a moment. Maybe he should go through his pockets, in case there were any clues there?
“Incoming! Get down!” Varhs yelled a second later.
There was a shrill whipping sound. Instantly, Blacknail was laying face first on the ground with his arms shielding his face. He didn’t have to be told twice. Stopping to think could get you killed!
Arrows hissed through the air where he had been standing a second ago. There was a dull crack as one embedded itself into a nearby tree trunk, and Blacknail flinched in pain as the sound stabbed into his ears. Ah, that was too close!
The hobgoblin didn’t take any chances. From on the ground, he lurched sideways and started rolling towards the base of a tree where the roots would shield him.
When he didn’t hear any more arrows, Blacknail looked up and peeked out from behind his hands. His companions were on the ground around him, and none of them seemed to have feathered shafts sprouting out from uncomfortable places. That was good.
Even better, Scamp was nowhere to be seen. The cowardly goblin had been running behind Varhs but had disappeared after his master had yelled. With luck something had already eaten him. More likely though, he had run off somewhere.
The next thing Blacknail noticed was the squad of enemy archers stomping through the woods towards him. Several of them were already reaching for new arrows.
“We need to get to the road!” Saeter yelled as he jumped to his feet.
The old scout immediately dashed forward and placed a wide tree trunk between himself and the archers. Blacknail scrambled up and ran after his master. Varhs and Khita sprinted for cover together, sort of. It looked like both of them were trying to outrun the other so that they could use each other as human shields.
Blacknail easily kept ahead of both of them. Losers!
Another arrow flew past and cut through the forest. It didn’t come close to hitting anyone, so everyone just kept running.
A ledge came into view up ahead. Past a few trees, the ground suddenly fell away. Down below, the road could be soon on the other side of some bushes.
“Damnation, I meant to go around this,” Saeter growled.
The fall couldn’t have been more than ten feet but it was still an uncomfortable jump. They didn’t have a lot of choices, though.
Blacknail put on a burst of speed and raced ahead. A second later, he jumped off the edge and plummeted down. He felt his bones shake as he landed in a crouch on the ground. The hobgoblin ignored the feeling. He quickly stood up and glanced backwards at the ledge.
Khita and Varhs were right behind him. The pair jumped over the ledge. They seemed to hang in the air for moment before plummeting back down to earth. Both of them landed feet first and then rolled straight past the hobgoblin. However, Saeter hesitated a moment before jumping.
Sensing a problem, Blacknail gritted his teeth and reached down inside himself to burn any Elixir left in his system. There wasn’t a lot but it would have to do.
“Jump and I’ll catch you,” he told his master.
“What? You don’t need to do that...” Saeter grumbled.
Blacknail gave his master an annoyed glare, but before he could say anything shouting broke out on top of the ledge. It sounded like the enemy was very close. Saeter threw a look over his shoulder and then immediately jumped.
The hobgoblin froze for a split second in surprise before reacting. He then spun to the side and reached out to scoop up his master’s legs. As Saeter’s weight descended Blacknail cushioned it.
Then he lost his balance. The impact knocked him backwards, and Saeter landed on top of him.
“Ack, toad piss,” Blacknail coughed painfully as he lay flat on his back.
His master had landed right on the hobgoblin’s chest. The impact had squeezed his ribs and knocked the air out of him. His lungs burned painfully when he tried to draw in a breath.
Saeter got up, brushed himself off, and immediately started running towards the road again. It was only a few dozen feet away.
“Hurry up, Blacknail!” he shouted. “Don’t just lay there like a log!”
The hobgoblin coughed again and pulled himself to his feet. He then quickly began following the others. As he picked up speed, he glared hostilely at his master’s back.
“Some thanks-ss would nice!” he hissed to himself.
When they got back to camp Blacknail was going to make sure Saeter paid him back! If he didn’t then the hobgoblin was sure Vorscha and Geralhd would find the story amusing. Yes, he was definitely going to get something tasty or shiny...
Khita and Varhs were already pushing through the bushes. Saeter was right behind them. Blacknail brought his hand up to shield his face as he stepped through the brush and out of the forest again.
“Your plan sucks,” Khita remarked as she looked around the empty road.
“What now?” Varhs asked. “Do we make a break for the other side?”
Saeter scowled as he studied the surroundings. The wide dirt road was empty. It cut through the forest but there was nothing to see in either direction.
The bushes a bit down the road shook as several enemies stepped out. They raised their weapons.
“Shit, we’re right back where we started,” Varhs cursed.