“Manhunters?” Marcus stared at the little girl fluttering back and forth in the air in front of him, her dragonfly wings beating rapidly and her eerily purple eyes staring back. She was looking at him like he was an idiot.
“She-” Gauraud paused. He was panting heavily, leaning on his spear and half bent over. “She means-” He steadied himself against the wagon. “She means bandits. They-” He drew a deep breath to steady himself. “Hunters what hunt people.”
Lyara beamed a smile at the poor man. “Yeah! Man hunters. Like I said.”
“That’s not…” Marcus sighed and shook his head. “Nevermind.”
The camp was small compared to when they left. Almost half the villagers had left the group, a few at a time. They had family in the hamlets of the region, places they could go to build a new life – and people they needed to warn about the hungry trolls.
Last night’s bonfire was being cleared away. The tents were already packed up. Gerald was arguing with Anna over the dishes. They’d be breaking off soon, too – Trudi had a sister down south. The wagons were being loaded, the oxen put into harness… Almost ready for another day of travel, and now this.
“How far off are they?” Marcus looked around at the gently rolling landscape. A few small copses dotted the area, but for the most part it was grasslands all around. The occasional hill limited how far he could see, but there was no way the brigands would be able to surprise them.
“About six-” Lyara was cut off.
“There were only two,” Gauraud waved in the general direction he had come running from. “Probably off to get more. They were-”
“I heard them say-” Lyara’s changed, perfectly imitating not just the accent of Marcus’ kin but sounding so much like a grown man that he had trouble believing it was spoken by the tiny creature before him. “Right, Kal. We’d best hurry back to th’ keep an’ tell the boss, or they gonna git across ‘afore we’re ready.”
“Across…?” Marcus frowned and looked in the direction they were going. “Jessai! The ford! They’re going to ambush us at the ford! Gerald!”
Gerald’s annoyed scowl turned to a look of confusion as Marcus came running over, then disbelief and finally outright fear as the news sank in. As they stood talking, Lyara came over with Taral looking unhappy as ever behind her.
“Can’t we just leave the wagons? If that’s what they want, won’t they leave us alone if they get them?”
“Then we’ll starve before we get to Crosswater.” Marcus frowned.
“Maybe not – we’ll be following the river a lot, so there’s plenty water. And maybe we can fish?”
“For a hundred people? With no guild licensed fishers? Or you been holding out on us, Gerald?”
“What’s a ‘guild licensed’?”
“Doesn’t matter, Lyara. We don’t have nets, so what’re we going to fish with?”
“Fine. Taral suggests spears, but not for all of us. Won’t they let us keep some food?”
“No. We live or we die, they don’t care. They want everything they can use.”
“How much can they eat?”
“They don’t plan on eating it, they plan on trading it for gold.”
“What is it with humans and gold?” Lyara rolled her eyes.
“What is it with faeries and cookies?” Gerald arched his brow at the fey.
“Hey! Cookies are tasty!”
“Enough, you two! We need to focus on the problem.”
(“Gold can be traded for lots of cookies!”)
“Sorry… Anyway, what about fighting?”
“If they’ve a ‘keep’ and are sending out scouts, there’s gotta be a fair few of ‘em.”
“There’s a score of us can fight, and that’s not counting them.” Gerald nodded at Taral.
“This far from the forest, the druids have little magic. But Tar-lagh says the hunters can fight.”
“Well, as long as they don’t have mounts, maybe. They come at us riding in flat, open place like this…”
“We’d need a good marsh to slow the horses. Ma’ used to gloat over dad marrying a highlander even though my gran was Yiihr.”
“Slow down! Your gran was yer what? And what’s a gran?”
“No, not my-” Gerald shook his head. “My father’s father was Yiihr. They’re nomads who got beat by highlanders.”
“Oh. What’s a highlander? Oh, and nomads!”
“Why, they’re… Y’see, there’s a kind of terrain that’s- I mean… up north in Poq there’s-”
“Ow!” Taral flicked the side of Lyara’s head, then started talking to her.
Marcus caught sight of his wife watching them with that look of mixed concern and judgment she always wore when she knew something was up before he could tell her.
“Taral says there’s a big hill over that way. He says we can put the wagons up there. It’s hard running up a hill, right?”
“You… Of course you haven’t.” Gerald chuckled at some private joke.
“You’ve got to be kidding me, Marcus!” His wife scowled at him. “People are dying and you’re still not going to do anything? Then you should’ve left the damned box!”
Marcus stared at the ground in sullen silence, looking every bit as uncomfortable as Gerald felt.
The raiders hadn’t even tried to talk. They’d just come right at them, arrows and axes leading the way. At least Aziz’ yearly drills had paid off and the shield wall had held against the first charge. Ky always said to cover the rear, and good thing too – the forestfolk fighters had gotten their hands full keeping the ruffians from climbing the wagons.
But the skirmish had hurt them as much as it had hurt the brigands.
“A few more victories like that, and the next group of thugs passing through will get to loot both sides.”
Marcus nodded meekly. She was right, and everyone knew it. They couldn’t keep this up and the raiders weren’t looking like they’d be giving in. They had a desperate gleam in their eyes that he just knew would give him nightmares for weeks.
Not that anyone here was likely to be sleeping well after this.
“Y’know, if this is what war is like, I owe my parents a damn mausoleum.” Gerald grimaced as one of the forestfolk shamans applied a foul-smelling ointment to his wound.
“War’s far worse.” Gauraud shuddered. He’d never talked much about his life in Eliren, but it was an open secret he’d deserted. From which side and why, though, nobody knew – or cared. After this, Gerald definitely sympathized. His parents had, too.
“With the way Taral goes through spears, we’ll be fighting unarmed soon.” Gerald smiled at the man when he looked up at the sound of his name.
“Aye, you’d think they’re made of parchment the way he breaks ‘em. Ferocious fighter, though. Maybe I could teach him to use a sword, if we can scavenge one from the bandits. Less likely to break, at least.”
“Made of leaves, you mean,” Gerald grinned.
“What do you expect me to do?! It’s been sixty years since the Guild fell, an’ I wasn’t even a teenager!” Marcus didn’t seem to notice everyone stopping to stare at him. “I can’t just mix some grass and dirt with water to make a healing potion! I need time, equipment, and ingredients!” Silence fell as the old man paused to collect himself. “You get me some guano and a few days of peace to work, and I’ll blow these blaggards to Iruqhal! But that ain’t happening, so there’s nothing I can do!”
“What’s guano?” Lyara poked Gerald’s shoulder.
“Eh?” He looked at her, and the elves beyond looking expectantly at him. “It’s bat droppings.”
“Ew! Why’d he want that?” The leaf-winged, grass-haired pixie turned back to the others to translate and left Gerald to wonder the same thing.
A few moments later she bolted across the camp to Marcus, talking so quickly that he kept having to tell her to repeat herself. All Gerald could make out was something about bats, and Marcus insisting he’d been exaggerating.