The scream that was lodged in Ruadh's throat took a moment to break loose.
"Spook! Demon! Ghost!" The words were followed by another unearthly scream as Ruadh ran back to the other men.
But he did not stop; his feet tore past them and continued through the wood. Curtenus and Axel exchanged a glance. When neither of them was willing to investigate the "spook", they shrugged and ran after their friend curious--but not too curious--about what he had seen.
Silver waited until they were out of sight and earshot. Their tracks would be impossible to miss now. 'The trees win again,' he thought, amused. 'I may have to work this maneuver into the regular routine. If soldiers think these woods are haunted, perhaps they'll think twice before they come this way.'
The Guardian swung down from the tree and landed softly on his feet like a cat. Thankful his ploy had worked, he continued to follow the trespassers for the next half hour deep into the heart of the wood. After a while, the smell of wood smoke filled the air.
In the heart of the untamed forest, a small clearing opened up to a campsite with a few tents and a small fire. Two men sat warming themselves by the flames as they cast suspicious glances over into the tree line. They knew the other men would likely return soon.
"They should have been back by now, I think." The first man said as he poked at the fire with a stick.
"I know. Must've gotten caught up with something," the broad shouldered man sitting next to him responded with a scowl. His eyes were sharp and forbidding, and his dirty brown hair was slicked back from his ruddy face.
"Yes, boss, must've been." The first man cleared his throat and went back to his prodding, wondering why his leader was always so sour. After a moment, he relinquished his stick to the flames and stood. "I'll go check around and see if I can spot any trouble."
"Yeah, you do that. You're not great company anyway." The man with the slicked back hair spat.
The scarred man marched off, glad to be out of the judgmental eyes of his leader.
At the edge of the clearing, Silver caught up to the three frightened fleeing men as they entered the camp. Ruadh's eyes were still wide with terror and his face was deathly pale.
The burly leader rose from the fire as the men approached. He could tell by their countenance that their evening did not go as planned. "Well? What happened?"
"Ruadh here says he saw a ghost," Axel said incredulously. While the muscular lackey had not truly doubted the claim out in the darkness, the firelight brought him new courage.
Curtenus chimed in, "Was probably just a large bird. Gave Ruadh a good scare."
"Me? I didn't see ya two workin' too hard to discover da source. Ya were right behind me running with yer tails between yer legs." Ruadh's indignation finally overcame his fear. He would not be made out to be the only fool in his boss's presence. He would take them down with him or die trying. "Don't go a callin' me a coward when ya didn't do nothin'. Ya hear me?"
The boss furrowed his brow and pinched his nose between his eyes. "Are you telling me you never made it to Silver's house because some bird scared you?"
With a furrowed brow, Ruadh was quick to defend himself. "No. That's not what we is sayin'. And it weren't no bird. It was a Demon Beast. It could float, and it stalked right up ta my face."
"Did it float or stalk? It can't do both." Curtenus interrupted.
"It floated then stalked. Yer not listening. It was nearly ten feet tall and had fangs like knives in its gruesome jowl. If I had a stayed another second it woulda gobbled me whole. I am lucky to be in one piece!" Ruahd checked his body with his hands as he spoke to make sure it was true.
The boss was only half listening. "Did you take care of Silver or not?"
Silver inched his way toward the four men. He was just inside the tree line and could see the boss's face clearly. His matted brown hair and crooked nose were familiar, and the memory that Silver had earlier was true. The next words he heard confirmed the man's identity.
"No, Jarek, we went ta his house, but he weren't home. We met da ghost on da way back."
"Thought you said it was a Demon Beast," Axel challenged, looking down on the man with the scar.
Ruahd was only slightly intimidated as he gulped. "Same thing in these parts. T'was a Demon Ghost Beast. It tried to entrance me with its silver gaze."
Upon hearing the last statement, Jarek jerked his head toward Ruadh. "What color did you say its eyes were?"
Pleased that he had finally interested the boss, Ruadh puffed up his chest. "They were bright and blinding silver eyes. Nearly put me under they spell, they did."
"Hmm," Jarek responded as he held his chin.
Ruadh's voice turned weak as he began to plead, "Can we do our theivin' and scheamin' somewhere else. pleasse? Leave Silver be and let's go 'cross the border. We should keep going while da gettin's good."
Jarek turned harshly on his subordinate, looking like a wolf about to attack, "How dare you! Silver sent us to rot in that prison. We can't move on until we've settled the score."
Silver's attention was drawn by a sound in the woods. His sensitive hearing honed in on the source of the distraction. Footsteps were approaching. The Guardian had assumed these four men were all that existed of this merry little band, but he realized that he was likely mistaken. After a moment, the men heard the steps also. Jarek and Ruadh pulled out knives, Axel fingered his long club and Curtenus unsheathed a shortened sword from his side to face the incoming visitor. They relaxed as they saw the fifth member of their gang approach with a bundle stretched across his shoulders.
"What do you have there, Berk?" Jarek asked, as he put away his knife.
Berk heaved the boy off of his shoulders and left him sprawled out on the ground. His hands were tied, and he struggled to sit up out of the dirty snow. Silver's heart sank when he saw the boy's face. It was Ethyn. 'No!'
"Found him snooping about our tracks off in the woods. He is a right little wood sprite, and quiet too. If he had not been so jumpy, I never would have seen him."
"Off in the woods you say?" Jarek mused. He grabbed Ethyn by the collar and shoved him into Ruadh's face. "Is this your Demon Ghost Beast, you fool? I hardly recognized him without his fangs. You were scared stiff by a child."
Ruadh cowered. His voice was small when he finally spoke. "It can't be. I tell ya there's a terrible demon ghost beast in da woods!"
Jarek released the boy and let him crumple back to the ground. He drew his knife and held it to Ethyn's throat. "What are you doing here?"
Ethyn's eyes flicked between the men. "I ran away from home," his voice was far calmer than he felt. "I thought maybe I could become a bandit."
Axel grinned. "I always wanted to have a lackey," he said, elbowing Curtenus. His tall elbow met with Curtenus's short head. The smaller man scowled and stepped away.
Jarek was unsatisfied with the boy's answer, "Why were you following our tracks?"
"I was practicing my hunting. I thought a group of stags had come through." Ethyn looked innocent and shrugged, "I guess I need more practice."
"What'll we do with him?" Berk asked.
"Well, since you brought him to our camp," Jarek said with a growl, "We've got no choice. Kill him." The leader kicked his toe at Ethyn and stepped back for Berk to follow orders. The fire reflected in his eyes as Berk lifted his own dagger to make a killing strike. Suddenly, a humming sound filled the air and Berk let out a cry of pain. The other men looked at him in confusion as they saw an arrow lodged in the man's wrist, and his blade dropped carelessly to the ground.
Jarek was the first to recover. He pulled up Ethyn to create a shield between himself and the threat. His knife, ever ready, went to the boy's throat. "Seems your ghost brought a friend," he said quietly to Ruahd. Then he called loudly into the trees, "Show yourself!"
A menacing voice came in reply, "Let the boy go." A chill ran down Ethyn's spine. The sound seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, a strange trick of the frosty air and the clearing, Ethyn thought. The boy could see the other men shift uncomfortably, searching for the source of the sound.
"I said come out," Jarek insisted, "or would you prefer I use this boy for a pin cushion?"
"And I said release the boy. My arrow may not be so kind next time."
Jarek shrugged, "Kill the others if you like. As long as I have this one here," Jarek tightened his grip around his captive, "you will not risk your arrow missing its target." Ethyn let out a small cry as he struggled to breathe.
Jarek's men stared at their leader, stupefied. They knew he was cruel. He did not hesitate to kill a small boy. But would he really let them be picked off by a stranger's arrows while he hid behind a child like a coward? Jarek saw the look in his men's eyes, and chose to ignore it.
"I will give you to the count of three before I spill this boy's blood." The boss spoke clearly, pausing to wait for a response. When none came, he sighed. "One, Two…"
"Stop!" Silver emerged from the shadow of the trees, bow drawn and trained on the leader. "You'll be dead long before the child if you go any further."