The circle of Slandra closed slowly around the group of warriors. Their hissing voices passed meaningless yet chilling words to the fighters, describing the hideous deaths they would suffer.
“This should be interesting,” said Bertran, the largest of the group. His great sword was resting lightly on his giant, metal plated shoulders.
“You always had a knack for understatements,” chortled his little brother, Nar, as he tested the balance of his axes, twirling them through his fingers.
The five other members of the group laughed in agreement. They included Pral the swordsman, the twin archers Glyc and Wenley, Phanza the sorcerer, and the female sneak Hosus. Each had his or her weapon ready and sharpened to kill Slandra.
“Be quiet all, while I prepare myself,” Phanza scolded them. The warriors retreated into their expecting silence, mentally preparing themselves for the battle to come.
“What exactly are you planning?” Hosus’s quiet voice cut through the hissing that pervaded the air. Though her voice was calm, the slender blades she held bobbed up and down as she prepared her own form of magic.
“The only spell I know that may see us through this day.”
The twins shifted uneasily, knowing Phanza always had multiple spells for any situation. Phanza’s muttering soon joined the Slandra hissing, and the glade around them descended into shadow.
Several moments passed, filled by Phanza’s mutterings and the rustle of clothes against weapons and armor. The Slandra were only a dozen paces away from the group.
“Circle up,” called Pral, “Glyc, Wenley, get some shafts ready. As soon as Phanza finishes his incantation, choose your targets and loose. Three shafts each, then out swords.”
The twins strung their short bows and jammed three arrows into the soft earth at their feet. They could fire three volleys with their bows before the Slandra moved as many feet.
The circling beasts approached within half a dozen paces of the warriors. Phanza’s mutterings grew louder, from a whisper to almost a shout. The completion of the spell came suddenly, and an unexpected chill fell upon each of the Slandra. Their movements slowed considerably, but the fire in their eyes surged brightly.
“Now!” yelled Pral and Bertran simultaneously.
Glyc and Wenley downed two Slandra before Bertran could lift his sword. Two more fell to Nar’s quick axes, and Bertran decapitated a third. A bright flash erupted from Hosus’s crossed blades, knocking down five in a line.
The Slandra let out a blood-curdling scream and charged. Their movements, slowed by Phanza’s spell, were still fast enough to force the fighters to combat back to back.
The battle was fierce. Bertran’s great sword skewered two, and the twins were forced to hack off additional serpents while Bertran freed his weapon. Phanza and Hosus battled side by side, his staff setting enemies aflame and her blades dropping them where they stood. Nar and Pral completed the circle, hacking and slashing.
Bertran’s sword got caught again, jammed in the plate mail of a larger Slandra, and he got yanked out of the circle. The human warriors’ intensity increased tenfold in their efforts to get to Bertran, and he finally resurfaced to resume his place.
Suffering from cuts in a dozen places, Bertran grabbed two of the curved scimitars from corpses, and his anger destroyed five in seconds. Nar’s left arm got slashed, and his axe fell to the ground. Pral dropped to a knee after being stabbed in the foot.
The fighting lasted only a few minutes. Every Slandra was dead or dying, but the seven warriors had all sustained several wounds.
“Gather round,” ordered Phanza, leaning heavily on his staff.
The twins had to support Bertran, and Hosus and Pral were helping each other. Nar was clutching his bleeding arm, but they quickly surrounded Phanza.
A short phrase left the sorcerer’s lips, and a dome of soft light covered the group. Small cuts healed instantly, and more severe wounds were cleansed and healed to a certain extent. The light dissipated, and Hosus quickly bandaged everything Phanza had not healed completely.
Phanza looked drained after the high use of his energy, his face appearing pale and shrunken. He slowly lowered himself to the ground. Though still young, his magic demanded a high price his body was pressed at times to produce.
“How is everyone?” he asked quietly.
“Bertran has a nasty slash across his back, but it’s not deep enough for any serious damage. Nar and the twins are fine, and Pral’s only real injury is a dent in his buckler,” Hosus replied.
Phanza nodded, peering at Bertran’s wound quickly. He could heal it now, but he would need his energy if another Slandra scouting party found them.
Pral helped Phanza to his feet, growling, “Get them up. We need to move.”
He nodded again, then moved to the others.
“Come, we must depart,” he said gently to Nar.
Together, they helped Bertran to his feet. Slowly, the big man gained his balance, and he hobbled off towards Pral with Nar following slightly behind, his face twisted in worry. Hosus and the twins were right behind them.
Phanza gazed once now upon the dead circle of serpent warriors. The Slandra were a fierce race, and had long lived in the mountain caves to the south. Lately, however, Slandra warrior parties had been raiding the forests around their mountain homes. Their sudden activity was a mystery to the sorcerer. In his bones though, Phanza felt an instinctual fear of what it could mean.
“Phanza?” The quiet voice at his side broke into his reverie.
“I’m coming, Hosus.”
Turning away from the Slandra corpses, Phanza and Hosus followed after the others. Behind them, the bloodstained glade quickly filled with the sounds of carrion eaters and scavengers.
Walking as quickly as possible with their injured companions, Phanza and Hosus took point and led the group down a barely visible deer trail. For two straight hours, the only sound intruding on the enclosed path was the crackling of dried leaves under the group’s boots.
The trail led to the edge of the forest, opening onto a broad grassland that stretched from horizon to horizon. Before stepping out into the open plain, Hosus ordered the others to halt. Dropping to her belly, she slithered into the grass to quickly scout the area.
“I hate it when she scouts alone,” grumbled Bertran. He was fiercely protective of the lithe thief, for they and Nar had grown up in the same village and considered each other family.
Pral just looked at him, but Nar grinned at his older brother.
“She’ll be okay. She always is,” Nar reassured him.
Bertran nodded, but continued to mutter to himself. Everyone else was silent, alone with their thoughts. It was nearly a half hour before Hosus returned.
After drinking some water, she began her report. “There are two raiding parties of Slandra, about ten miles to the south. The north is empty of all but natural animal life, and to the west I saw a large gathering of warriors.”
“Human or Slandra?” Pral asked quickly.
“Human. I counted near seven hundred, which would easily allow them to wipe out those Slandra raiders.”
“I wonder if that is all they plan,” Phanza stated quietly.
Hosus looked at him, but shook her head. She had not thought it wise to slip into the camp and discover their plans. Everyone nodded in agreement, then all eyes turned toward Pral. He would determine their next course of action. Several quiet moments passed before he revealed his plan.
“Obviously, we will not go south. None of us want to battle the Slandra again so soon. To the west, we could join the men. But we do not know if they are friend or foe, and I would rather not take that chance. To the north, there is a river, if I remember correctly, that can take us all the way to the coast, if needs be.”
“I think the choice…” said Glyc.
“…is obvious,” finished Wenley.
Pral nodded, looking at the others. Each consented in turn.
“We go north then,” stated Pral simply.
The group stood, lifted their gear onto their backs, and stepped onto the plain. They faced north, keeping to the edge of the forest, and shielded their eyes from the setting sun in the west. They walked until darkness made everything the same shade of deep blue, then set up camp. They ate a cold dinner, for a fire would have been seen for miles around.
They dropped off to sleep soon thereafter. Bertran assumed the first watch of the night. Nar took his place shortly before midnight, and Pral took the final watch before morning. He always assumed this duty, for it was that time of the night when most people were least watchful.
The night passed uneventfully, and Pral woke everyone up at first light. After quickly collecting their gear, they continued walking north, slowly angling themselves onto the plain. They ate a cold breakfast of travel bread in silence.
Around noon, they discovered a hidden stream. They halted to fill their water skins and allow Hosus to scout ahead. They waited ten minutes before resuming travel, and Hosus caught them after only a few steps.
Her breathing was labored, as if she had just been sprinting, and the look in her eyes spelled trouble.
“What is it?” Phanza asked, dread creeping into his voice.
“It seems we are to fight,” Hosus replied. “We are caught between that human army from yesterday and no small number of Slandra ahead.
“Where did they come from?” questioned Pral.
Hosus only shrugged in response.
“Can we get around?” the twins asked. Despite their extraordinary talents at killing, they detested violence.
“If we move quickly, we may be able to reach the forest. Whether that is safe I cannot say.”
“We go,” Pral stated firmly.
The group quickly turned east, preparing for a long run to the trees. Before they could take fifteen paces, however, Hosus motioned everyone to the ground. They immediately dropped to the grass in a small hollow.
Long moments passed in tense silence, but soon the stomp of hundreds of boots could be heard close by. Phanza peered over the top of the hillock and looked across at several hundred armored humans marching past. He quickly counted the number of soldiers in a row and the number of rows that passed in seconds.
He counted approximately nine hundred soldiers passing their small hideout. He whispered this number to Pral, who nodded grimly.
“Apparently, they received reinforcements during the night. A battle is soon to come. We must be away before it does,” Pral whispered back.
Pral then turned to Hosus and, using hand signs, told her to follow the rearguard of the human force for ten minutes, then follow them into the trees.
Hosus nodded, and slipped quietly into the high grass to await the rearguard. Phanza muttered a quick protective spell over her before she departed, one that would deflect small blades. She would have to protect herself from anything larger than a dirk.
As soon as the rearguard had passed their niche, which was another five minutes, the twins led everyone at a hunched sprint across the grassland. They stopped every few minutes to let everyone catch their breath and stretch their quivering muscles.
The group ran three miles before the grass turned green and the ground became uneven with the roots of the old giants of the forest. It was another quarter of a mile before they were among the trunks that provided them safety.
Bertran collapsed on the ground in exhaustion, gasping for breath. The others gripped trees to hold themselves up, for their quivering legs could barely hold them. Even the invulnerable Pral was breathing heavily.
Several minutes passed in which the only sound to disturb the silent forest was everyone sucking in air. Sounds of battle clashed in the distance, and soon a giant cloud of dust and vultures marked its location.
More minutes passed, and Hosus had not yet appeared. Bertran started mumbling to himself about going after her. Phanza inwardly agreed that it would be prudent to start searching for her, but he knew Pral would never authorize such an action.
A cool breeze rustled the leaves around them, and the warriors never heard the stealthy footsteps of the approaching soldiers. Suddenly, Hosus came crashing through a bush. Her startling appearance immediately caused blades to be drawn and arrows nocked before they saw who it was.
“We must leave!” gasped Hosus.
Pral wasted no time asking questions. He did not even bother to disguise their presence in the forest before everyone was once again jogging through the trees. Bertran handed his sword to Pral and scooped Hosus onto his back.
Before she could complain, Bertran grumbled protectively, “Do not scold me, nor complain. You are lighter than my sword and you can hardly walk.”
Hosus gave him a tight-lipped scowl, but finally nodded. Bertran smiled slightly to himself when he felt Hosus grip him tighter.
At a light jog, the group ran in two columns, three in each. Pral and Bertran led, and Hosus recited her sights from Bertran’s back.
“I followed the rearguard for ten minutes, like you said,” she began. “Before I could get away though, they were ambushed by Slandra. There were only a couple of the snakes but they had the advantage. Anyway, I was stuck between them and the human fighters, so I joined the humans.”
“Obviously,” chuckled Bertran.
“The Slandra caught them in a vise,” continued Hosus. “Though their force was smaller, they had the advantage of surprise and a two-pronged attack. Many of the humans were killed before they could unsheathe their weapons. The battle was over quickly, and the humans retreated even without a counterattack. I managed to outrun them to these woods, but they are close.”
Pral looked back at the twins and made a chopping motion, ordering them to dispatch any followers. Being the two smallest, they would be least likely to be discovered. Hosus would have been the first choice, but her current exhaustion prevented that.
Glyc and Wenley halted and stepped off the trail, melting into the foliage. They would follow when they could no longer hear their companions. The group quickly pulled away from the lurking archers.