“I’ll bet you five gold pieces no one comes,” Glyc whispered from the left side of the trail."
You’re on, brother. I don’t trust our luck today,” Wenley replied.
Glyc grinned, and his brother could only make out the slight sheen of his eyes. They waited until they could no longer hear Bertran’s tromping ahead of them, and then waited another slow count of one hundred.
“Let’s go,” they said in unison.
Standing, they walked silently, two vigilant hunters straddling the path. They saw and heard no one other than each other for several minutes.
“Stop!” Wenley whispered, his voice harsh in the stillness.
A moment passed, and Glyc heard a stick snap behind them. The forest was otherwise silent, devoid of birdsong and the natural sounds of the woods. Glyc turned to his brother. Pointing upwards, he mimicked drawing his bow and aiming low. Wenley nodded and clambered up the nearest trunk while Glyc stayed low, crouching in a large bush. In silence, they waited.
They did not wait long before a small, ragged group of human soldiers came stalking through the woods. Six of them followed a smaller man who knelt to the ground, appearing to study the leaves on the forest floor. Glyc decided he wouldn’t kill him yet, and he hoped his brother had the same thought. The scout could be a useful source of information.
Glyc withdrew four arrows from his quiver, jabbed three into the ground and nocked the fourth. He carefully sighted down the shaft at a man in the back of the group.
The group was thirty feet away when the first man fell to the ground, an arrow protruding from his chest. Glyc noticed his brother had chosen the man at the back as well so the group would turn at his death throes. Glyc immediately felled another man with an arrow to his back.
Glyc nodded to himself as he noticed their scout had reacted to the man’s death, but was peering ahead, searching calmly for the enemy. Glyc fitted his second arrow, loosing it at the man left of the scout.
The group quickly dwindled under the twins’ surprise barrage until only two remained. One was the scout. The other was a lucky soldier who had managed to avoid a fatal blow from Glyc’s arrow. Instead, he now had a shaft extending through his shoulder instead of his spine.
Trist held his position on the ground. His last soldier was hiding behind a tree, his face contorted in pain. The ambush had decimated his scouting party, and he could see from the skill of the archers he was only alive because they hadn’t wanted him dead.
“Listen to me,” he whispered to his fellow survivor. “Get out of here. Run back to camp and tell the commander to bring a battalion this way. I will draw their fire.”
The soldier nodded. Trist sprinted off to his right, yelling and shouting. The soldier gave him ten paces before he started his own sprint. Trist looked back once in time to see his comrade sprout another feathered shaft from his back.
“Blood and ashes!” Trist cursed loudly. He immediately halted his shouts and dropped back to the ground. “I am in serious trouble,” he thought to himself.
Trist considered his options. There were no more than two archers, but there might be more fighters in hiding. He had seen the tracks of four others, including one giant. They probably knew where he was, and could or would kill him if he ran. That left him only one option.
“I surrender,” he shouted dejectedly.
“Glad to hear it.”
Trist flinched at the voice coming from only a few feet away. He stood up slowly, palms out. He didn’t want to be shot because they thought he might attack.
“Smart man,” came another voice, this one behind him, “Now come with us.”
Trist looked back at his other captor. Then forward again. His eyes grew wide when he saw the same man standing behind him as before him. He felt the blood drain from his face.
“Are you…g-g-ghosts?” Trist could barely force out the whisper. While a brave man, he was also quite superstitious.
The two men burst into laughter. Their guffaws shocked Trist even more. It was some moments before anyone could speak.
“Ghosts, he says,” one of the men finally gasped. This statement caused a new eruption of laughter. When they finally got their laughter under control, they explained Trist’s mistake.
“That’s the first I’ve ever heard of ghosts. No, we’re not ghosts, nor undead. We’re living flesh and bone just like you. We just happen to be twins.”
“Oh.” The simple explanation made Trist feel very silly but he felt immediately better, and the easy bearing of the two men made him less nervous about their intentions. He began to lower his hands and immediately had two arrows pointed at his torso.
“We might not be ghosts, but we’ll still kill you if you give us trouble.” All gaiety had vanished from their voices.
Trist raised his hands again and nodded his understanding. The man behind him pulled his arms behind him and bound his wrists together.
The smiles returned, and with a nod forward, Trist and his captors began their march. They rejoined the path quickly and Trist’s quick eyes soon picked up the other footprints. The trail was no more than an hour old and at the rate his captors were pushing him, they would likely catch up before nightfall.
They walked for several more hours and the trail grew ever fresher. The twins behind him did not speak, but they were kind and gave him water whenever he asked.
Night descended quickly, almost as if someone had snuffed out the sun. The trio halted momentarily to allow their eyes to adjust. Trist’s eyes adjusted quickly and were able to pick out the trail after only a minute. He saw a nod pass between his captors as he began walking the path again without provocation. Strangely, he did not feel nervous despite his captivity.
They walked for several more minutes before stopping suddenly. Trist walked a few more steps before looking back quizzically, but the twins only smiled and pointed forward. He looked ahead again, but before he could completely turn his head he felt cold steel against his throat. He froze immediately, and let his body go loose.
“Smart man,” whispered a distinctively feminine voice. Trist realized that was the second time he had heard that this day and hoped he would fare as well as he had initially.
Trist looked down at the knife holder. A slender woman looked up at him, and her cold eyes bored into his. He gulped involuntary.
“A healthy dose of fear under tight control. Fast eyes. An obvious soldier mentality. Except for the fact that he is the last living member of his party. That shows intelligence,” she said, almost to herself.
Trist blinked. How had she known? He had heard no words exchanged nor seen hand signals flashed. His fear jumped. These were no ordinary brigands.
Glyc and Wenley smiled at each other. Hosus was a master when it came to making people uncomfortable. She glanced at them, then back up at the prisoner. Her blade never wavered next to his throat. The steel glowed dully.
“Come on. The camp is just ahead,” Hosus stated flatly.
“Is dinner ready?” Wenley asked cheerily. His stomach echoed the question.
“Pral is cooking.”
Wenley’s face dropped. “Damn.”
Everyone laughed except the prisoner. Hosus’s blade was still pressed against his throat and he hadn’t twitched.
“Stop scaring the man, Hosus, and let him move,” Glyc reprimanded.
Hosus blushed slightly, though it was near impossible to see in the dark, and sheathed her dagger. Wenley thought he heard a muttered apology escape her mouth. He smiled at the thought.
“Are you going to stand there like idiots or come eat?” someone yelled from up ahead.
“We’re coming,” Glyc and Wenley said in unison. Hosus smiled at the shared response.
Hosus nodded her head towards the camp and three wanderers and their prisoner entered a small hollow. They were greeted by the welcomes of comrades and the smell of scorched venison.
“Beware the venison,” Glyc whispered to the soldier. “If you eat it quickly, you won’t have to taste it.”
Once everyone was in the light of the cooking fire, the talk ended and all eyes turned toward the prisoner. The bound man turned towards Bertran.
“I am Trist Ritin, a scout and courier in the King’s army.” He bowed.
Bertran smiled at the group over the prostrated man’s head, amused by his assumed role.
“I am Bertran, a humble swordsman of these lands and slightly less important in this group than you give me credit for.”
Trist’s head snapped up, his eyes following Bertran’s outstretched finger to another swordsman, veiled in a heavy cloak of dark green. Their eyes met, and Trist felt nearly overwhelmed by the controlled power behind that gaze.
“My name is Pral Stanj. You are well met, Trist Ritin, though not in the most pleasant of circumstances.”
Trist nodded and bowed again. Pral inclined his head in greeting.
“Glyc. Wenley. A report, please, while we eat,” Pral commanded politely.
“Of course,” Wenley stated.
“Right away,” Glyc added.
“Perhaps some bread…”
“And we’ll begin,” they finished together.
Everyone but Pral laughed, but he smiled slightly and nodded his acquiescence. Even Trist could not stop himself from grinning at the twins.
After a hasty meal, Glyc and Wenley launched into their tale. They began with a quick recap of the terrain and tactics of their ambush, followed by a very detailed description of the force Trist had been leading. Pral nodded along, occasionally interjecting with a question for his own clarification.
The story ended with the discussion of Trist’s capture and his subsequent “enlistment” in their group. At this point, Trist became the focus of attention.
“Allow me to make introductions,” said Pral with a small sympathetic smile.
“I am, and you already know Bertran and the twins Glyc and Wenley. The man with the axes is Nar, and with the staff is Phanza. I believe you have met Hosus,” he finished with a small look at the woman.
Trist nodded at each in turn, and gave a small bow to Hosus, causing the twins to smile mischievously. Hosus gave them a dirty look before retreating back into stony silence.
“Seeing as you’re our prisoner,” Trist looked over at Bertran, who had begun speaking, “you might as well be comfortable. We can’t really let you go now can we?” he asked of no one in particular.
Trist was confused for a second, but he did not feel nervous. These people, who had thus far done him no harm, would not kill him outright…would they?
He didn’t see Hosus move until she was nearly behind him. But when he tried to follow her movements, his body went suddenly rigid. He peered around wildly, and thought he saw a saddened look cross Phanza’s face before he felt the light touch of cold steel at the base of his skull. Panic filled his body, but no matter how much he tried to free himself of his invisible bonds, his limbs would not respond.
He felt Hosus bend close behind him.
“I’m sorry. May you live forever on the green shores of Iliath.” With these final words, Hosus slid her blade precisely through the back of Trist’s neck. His body remained upright, held by Phanza’s spell. A short word caused the former tracker to sprawl forward on the forest carpet.
“Why did we have to do that?” Glyc immediately growled. “He was smart. We could have recruited him.”
Hosus shook her head, but it was Pral who answered. “He was a loyal soldier at heart, and that would not have changed no matter how long you tried Glyc. Furthermore, we told him who we are. Our mission is secret, and our identities, at least some of us, are not widely unknown. If it were discovered that such a group as ours was traveling together, it would raise dangerous questions. We have a job to do, and nothing can stand in our way.”
Glyc and his brother started muttering between themselves, occasionally casting nasty glances at Pral, who stonily ignored them. The deed was done; there was no turning back.
No one else voiced their opinions, but most of them believed the scout had not needed to die. One of the reasons they followed Pral, though, in spite of his ruthlessness, was his uncanny foreknowledge. Perhaps this was one such occasion.