5. Ifonsa and Ganthe

Ifonsa spied.

She could see movement in the trees on the opposite side of the valley. The enemy were closing. Unless she and the others managed to lose them soon, they would catch up within a few hours.

Yet despite all their efforts the enemy continued to follow the true trail, as if they were hounds after a fox. Ifonsa especially regretted the time they had wasted after finding the bargemen murdered.

Several of the crew had been shot by arrows, but most had been stabbed. Both oxen had their throats cut. The bargemen hadn’t just submitted either. Two of them had bloody knives grasped in their hands. Ultimately their defence had been for nought. They had all died.

Yet there was no sign of any attackers. Not so much as a footprint, a bent blade of grass, nor a drop of blood leading from the barge. It was as if they were attacked by ghosts, who vanished immediately after.

As she and Ganthe had scanned the area, Lera and Heric had gathered the men’s bodies and placed them on the barge. Falduin was as useless as ever, spending more time in the water than out.

Afterwards Lera performed Last Honours, as Heric and Ganthe collected the remaining kit, storing it on the bank. Then they poured an entire lantern’s worth of oil upon the barge and pushed it out into the river. Falduin finally did something useful, and lit it with a spell. The barge burst into flames. They remained watching it for a time, as it gradually drifted down river.

Later they followed the tow path. It would lead them straight to Cabridge, where they could resupply. Ifonsa doubted they would find suitable horses there (at least at a decent price), but they might be able to charter another barge. At the very least they could prepare for the walk to Harnsey. Heric had said he hadn’t decided which he preferred.

Of course, using the tow path proved to be a mistake. Ifonsa chided herself for not thinking of the possibility. She had become too focused upon the ghosts, trying to work out how they had managed the attack. She completely disregarded Falduin’s ridiculous theory. In her mind it was simply impossible.

They had a leisurely walk for about an hour. It was really quite pleasant, meandering through the willow trees. At one point, Ifonsa had spotted a tawny rabbit in the distance. Despite her pointing it out, Falduin still couldn’t see it.

Then Ganthe noticed movement on the other side of the river. There were more bandits chasing after them. In fact they were within bow range. Arrows struck around them, as they fled.

Ifonsa led them away from the river, overland heading mostly towards the north-east. They trekked through the woodland, which was interspersed with the occasional hamlet or small village.

At one village they passed through, one farmer had an eye for a quick coin from a group of travellers. He chased after, to offer them fresh fruit and vegetables. They bought a small bag of strawberries, which all except Falduin shared. He chose an onion, which he peeled and then munched like an apple.

Ifonsa couldn’t help make a face as she watched Falduin eat. “Is it normal for you to eat raw onions where you come from?” she asked him.

“No. I’ve eaten strawberries. I wanted something different, and the farmer didn’t have any carrots. I’ve never eaten a raw onion before.”

“How is it?”

“Delicious!” he said taking another large bite. Yet Ifonsa could smell the onion’s pungent aroma. Tears were already rolling down the Apprentice’s cheeks.

For the rest of the day they saw no sign of their pursuers. There were few ways to cross the river between Milardus and Cabridge, so that did not surprise Ifonsa. Yet she should have been more cautious. Instead they roamed through the countryside, chatting and laughing like they were on a picnic.

Then as the sun crept towards the horizon, they made yet another mistake. They decided to head towards Cabridge. In hindsight it would have been wiser to seek a bed space and food from one of the farmers, and from there continue onward to Tarburh. However, they did not know how matters stood. They did not know how badly the bandits wanted them dead.

The sun had set, leaving behind lingering pinks and purples in the sky, as they climbed the northern shoulder of Cawik Hill. It was properly dark, the moon new, by the time they spotted the southern edge of the village.

Many of the lights were still shone in the houses and along the docks, the black ribbon of the river curving away both left and right. Sheep, goats, and occasionally a cow, dozed, or grazed in the fields. From the hill, the settlement and surrounding farmland looked peaceful.

The gates were closed, but that would prove no problem. The wooden palisade wouldn’t be difficult to climb. Ifonsa volunteered to scout ahead while the others waited on the rocky slopes, munching on the meagre scraps that Ganthe had scrounged.

She never even got close. They were waiting for her. She stumbled upon a pair of them lurking in a drainage ditch. They shouted the alarm, then shot arrows at her as she skirted away. There must have been twenty of them nearby.

She only escaped because they were disorganised, and didn’t use their numbers to cut off her exit. Instead they gathered together and then followed her. She led them on a merry chase away from the others, before returning to the encampment.

They had been chased ever since. Initially Ifonsa had managed to deceive them into following a false trail to the south, while she and her companions continued south-east. However soon their pursuit was back on, and no matter what tricks Ifonsa tried, she couldn’t shake them.

Their pursuers were relentless. They were pushed all through the night, and into the following morning. Everyone was exhausted. Everyone except Ganthe. He seemed as filled with energy and mischief as ever.

“I’m going closer.” Ganthe told her.

“Don’t get caught,” she replied.

He flashed her a grin and was gone.

A coil in the shape of a nine

Ganthe hid.

There were three of them. All garbed in variations of leather brigandine. Ganthe wondered if they had raided a fort. It was like the knights he had seen during the war. They were all wearing similar gear. At least with the knights their patterned surcoats allowed him to tell one from another.

Scouting along the forward flank of the main group, they were spread out across twenty paces or so, creeping down the slope. They were good, and he hadn’t seen them until they were almost upon him.

Unfortunately, he was caught moving positions, and had to quickly scamper up the nearest oak tree. They must have heard something because they changed their course, moving straight toward the tree.

He lost sight of them for a time, they were hidden by the oak leaves. However, every now and again he heard a footstep in the undergrowth, or the rustling of leaves caused by their passing.

Then he saw them directly below, passing in a line beneath the tree. They had definitely heard something, they had their swords drawn.

The one in the middle stopped. He issued a quick series of hand signals, and the other two froze.

Ganthe held his breath. All they needed to do was look up and they’d see him clutching one of the thick boughs. He had his knife held in his teeth, but it wouldn’t be much use against the three of them. He wished he hadn’t left his sword behind with the others.

They knew he was near. He could tell from the way they moved. Unlike at Rauhoffen, where he had watched the goblins searching for him for days, he had no better hiding place.

He remained motionless, ignoring the green ants biting at his arms. Some of them had even found their way under his clothing and armour and were attacking his armpit. Yet he could do nothing about them.

Then he spotted his doom. In his climb up, he had left a mark on the trunk. It must have been visible from where they were. It was like pointing a giant arrow straight up at him.

Perhaps he could drop down on the far side of the tree and run. They would hear him and give chase, but he could lead them away from where the others were. If he was especially lucky he might be able to take one or two with him. At the very least it would slow them down for a while.

As he removed the knife from his mouth, the middle one stirred suddenly twisting to face the tree. It was almost as if the bandit had heard Ganthe.

Then there was the sound of movement nearby. Footsteps crunching the leaf litter. The three turned toward the newcomer.

“Too far.” It sounded like a youth, his voice barely broken. “Into the valley.”

The middle bandit nodded, and the three of them sheathed their swords. Then they set off at a tangent, moving as silently as wraiths in the night.

It did not take Ganthe long to catch up to the youth. He was making an awful racket as he climbed up the hill. Ganthe followed him, hoping he’d lead him back to the main group. He wanted to get a good look at them, especially the leader. That might provide a clue as to who was behind the scheme to have the others killed. Him too if he remained with them.

He had done the same during the war, sneaking into enemy camps. Most of the time he just had to count their size. Not that he was especially good with his numbers, but he could count (using his fingers), and it was easy to tell his superiors if there were more or less than a hundred goblins.

He halted, choosing to remain at the edge of the bandit group. They moved about too much for his liking. He couldn’t predict where they would go, and that might end uncomfortably. Carefully he shadowed them as they climbed down into the valley.

He kept a close watch, and counted. There were far less than a hundred bandits. In fact he could count them on one hand – just. He spotted nineteen, plus the three scouts. They moved around a central point, like a hive of bees or ants seeking a new lair. He wanted to see the leader. Could he sneak in closer?

Then he realised what he was seeing. It was not what he had expected. He watched far longer than was healthy for him. He could hear movement drawing near. They were almost upon him, but the risk proved to be worth it. He was absolutely certain now.

Carefully he edged away, and returned to Ifonsa.

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