Tjesmond marched through the dense forest, his blade at his hip; and behind him and before him marched his Trusted Companions, a hundred strong, proud and disciplined and clad in leather and mail. They moved in file, each stepping in the footsteps of the one before to ease their passage and disguise their number; all were veterans of the wilderness, and few in Estlunde could be said to match them for martial valour or skill -
- but there was something amiss, for their march seemed to have become something more of a skulk, and each snapping branch and rustling leaf sent a fearful shiver through the ranks. They moved as quickly as they dared, and cast glances behind them often - and their flagbearer bore no flag, and from the distance, behind them, screams could be heard.
The Trusted Companions saw movement through the trees; they tensed, and some drew bows from their backs. The motion accelerated, and the Companions braced, pulling back - gained sight of the intruder as it shot through - a deer!
Samhŏl, an Old Man with the Companions for two years, was the only one to fire; his shaft went wide, and the others tormented it for it. "Samhŏl Swiftshot," one suggested mockingly; another, "Samhŏl Silvereye." (The latter to imply blindness on poor Samhŏl's part.) His luck took a turn for the better half a turn of the glass later, though, when his travel through the bush startled a game bird and sent it scurrying beneath him; Samhŏl's reflexes served him better this time, and his companions praised Samhŏl as he slung the choice prize over his shoulder.
Carin, Tjesmond's second-in-command and (at present) path-breaker, looked back at Tjesmond questioningly: an unspoken question lingered in the air between them. Tjesmond shook his head. "It is worth it for them to distract themselves from our present straits," his gesture conveyed to Carin, "even for a small risk that by their careless speech the Crows may find us."
Carin shrugged, and turned back to the path; not long after, she stumbled into the body.
Carin was experienced at woodcraft, and a veteran of combat. She had singlehandedly slain the Exaltation of Consumption with the family wood-cutting axe - this being the act which allowed her entry into the Companions - and since participated in (or led) half a dozen other monster-slaying hunts. She was by no means weak of stomach - so when she, having (after a moment's incomprehension) realized exactly what her boot had plunged into knee-deep, turned from the path and was noisily sick, it should by no means be taken as a condemnation of her character.
Tjesmond, directly behind her, pushed forward to look at the remains. His face, previously dark with worry and guilt, now turned somewhat pale. He stopped the column.
"They must have dropped the poor bastard from a height," Carin said, now largely recovered. "Probably had already eaten their fill - and then when they were done - "
"We leave no-one behind," Tjesmond ordered. "Not ours, not Jerna's recruits, not even any of the Rebel's men, should they somehow have stumbled into this catastrophe. Better to cut their throats ourselves than to leave them for the Crows."
Not a single voice was raised in objection.
Carin set about blazing a new path; safely away from the body.
It was another turn of the glass before Carin called a halt to the column. Tjesmond dropped into a ready crouch, drawing his sword from its scabbard; Carin motioned for him to stop. "Quiet," she hissed. Tjesmond, trusting her, sheathed his blade and relayed the command; the order trickled down the column. The Trusted Companions fell silent...
And in the silence, the sound of voices could be heard.
Slowly, quietly, the Trusted Companions moved closer; and then the voices fell quiet.
Tjesmond again drew his sword; this time Carin followed suit, and the rest of the Trusted Companions with them. The column separated, turning into several loose clumps, each creeping closer to the last place the voices were heard. They expected the worst.
To find several dozen women, ranging from bloodied and scratched to mortally wounded, hostile and armed with crossbows - under the circumstances, it was almost uplifting!
"Don't come any closer, you filthy backstabbing cowards!" one of the women, wearing a stained red livery which might once have been that of the King, shouted Carin's way. "We'll fill you with feathers if you come any closer, just like we promised you we would, you - "
"We're Tjesmond's men," Carin said. "Not your wayward companions."
"They left us to die," the woman, whose name was Laerke, explained. "Everyone too wounded to walk, and the few of us with the decency to care for them. Left us for the crows."
Carin winced. She looked to Tjesmond; but he was already moving, looking at the wounded crossbowwomen. "No," he said, his face grim. "We'll not allow that."
"You won't be able to move at once," Laerke said. "The worst of us are in too bad a condition to be moved - we'll need water, bandages - "
Tjesmond shook his head. "The Crows are too close behind," he said. "I want to be out of the wood by nightfall and in the King's palace in three days."
"Then - ?" Laerke asked, confused. Carin winced again.
"Those of you as can move, we will take with us," Tjesmond said; "and for the rest, the knife."
Laerke took it well, all things considered.
"If you're going to take anyone who can walk," she said once she had calmed down, "then there's someone you're missing. Our commander - back along our trail, a quarter-glass's walk."
"Why is she not with you?" Tjesmond asked sharply.
"She was trying to look at a map; walked into a clearing, just for a moment, for light," Laerke said. "Her staff died quickly, but they kept her around; seemed to be keeping her as a toy, darting in whenever she got near the edge of the meadow. If they haven't killed her yet - "
"Yes," Tjesmond said, turning away. "Carin, you'll stay here and finish the cleanup. Eshud, Roth, and Vhin's squads are with you."
"How long should I wait?" Carin asked.
Tjesmond froze. A long silence passed; and then he answered. "One glass. No more."
As he hurried back along the regulars' trail, his Companions jogging behind and alongside, one word circled in Tjesmond's mind:
The clearing was wide, inviting. The clouds from earlier in the day had cleared up nicely; the sun shone down. Blood and body parts were scattered on the grass and flowers; in the center lay a lone woman, her uniform rent and torn. She seemed to have collapsed from blood loss. From the edge of the meadow, it was impossible to see if she was still breathing.
"I'll take two squads," Tjesmond said. "Swords and shields ready, forming a wall around me. The rest of you form a ring around the meadow, bows ready, teams of two. We go in, we go out..."
"...and maybe the Crows have already forgotten about her," Tjesmond said, the corner of his mouth quirking. "Worth hoping, eh?"
The skies were bright and clear.
It seemed astonishing how the black-winged Crow-Men could move, swooping on Tjesmond's party as though from thin air.
The scene was pure chaos. Men swung and screamed, raked by grime-stained claws; the Crows called out in their own guttural tongue. There was a taste of bile in Tjesmond's throat as he shouted for his men to hold in their formation; it felt as though the catastrophic battle he was still fleeing from was about to repeat -
-but then arrows from the archers Tjesmond had stationed around the clearing filled the air; the Crows vanished as quickly as they came, leaving only a pair of hacked and arrow-feathered bodies to mark their passing - aside from the wounds among Tjesmond's men.
By luck or by grace, none of Tjesmond's Companions had fallen in the attack; and Laerke's commander was still breathing.
"How much longer do we march?" Carin asked, once the Trusted Companions (injured soldiers in tow) had reunited. "Even those of them that can walk are walking wounded, and with the ones we can carry - I'm worried about our stamina."
Tjesmond looked to the sky, faintly visible through the thick canopy overhead.
"We march until nightfall," he said. "By then, hopefully, we'll be safe - but no sooner."
Overhead, cheerily, the early afternoon sun shone.