Periodically Gadon called a halt to look for tracks in the grasses and shrubbery to the sides of the well-worn path. He surmised that Rowena and Dixon stayed off of it so that they could take cover more quickly if the need should arise. Occasionally, in their wake, they left broken twigs and flattened grass where they walked, or hoof prints where they rode.
“Here . . . and here . . . and here. See that?” Gadon pointed out footprints in the sand. “And look here. They stopped for a time. This must be where they spent the night.” He scouted further. “Wait— What’s this? Blood? Hmmmm. Maybe. Looks like.” He touched the spot, then brought his fingers to his nose. “Smells like.” He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “Heri!”
A man stepped forward. His lack of discipline was evident in his slouched stature. His scraggly, thinning hair hung in his eyes. “Yes, sir,” he said, smiling to reveal crooked, ill-kept teeth.
“Ride ahead. Stay in line with that path.” Gadon pointed. “See there? As it enters the forest?”
“Yes, sir.” Spittle hung from Heri’s lips.
“Ride hard. If you see them, prepare to signal us. We’ll enter over there.” He showed the man his intentions. “We’ll catch up soon enough, so don’t try to take them alone. If you don’t see us within a few hours, then stop and wait.”
Heri nodded his understanding, then rode off.
As Gadon muddled over the tracks, he determined that this might be his best opportunity to take Rowena down. They were in an isolated place, and she was close. She had to have left her tracks late the previous night, after the rain had ceased.
Yes, my patience has run out.
He took the grut whistle from his pocket, placed it to his lips, and then blew.
A shriek cut through the air. The men covered their ears to stop the excruciatingly painful sound.
The ground burst open. Dirt and debris flew into the air. With a blast of wind as from the pits of the underworld, a pack of grut emerged, panting and screaming. Their tongues hung out and their eyes took in their surrounds. Their wiry hair stood on end.
The explosion threw Gadon from his feet. He landed on his back, the wind knocked from his lungs. He struggled to pull in a breath, then rolled over and onto his hands and knees. He stood, staggering and stumbling.
Simon fell and hit the side of his head on a boulder. Blood ran down through his hair and muddied his eyes.
Bruce, who’d stood on the very spot that opened to the grut, flew through the air. His arms and legs thrashed about. When he hit the ground, he was knocked unconscious. Blanketed in debris, he looked like a corpse in a shallow grave.
The grut shot out toward the forest ahead.
Another of the men, Petron, approached Bruce, brushed aside the dirt, then helped the youth to sit up. Bruce’s eyes were glossed over, one seemingly focused on the hole in the ground, while the other—his wandering eye—appeared to watch the grut streaking off into the distance.
“There!” Gadon cried as the last of the grut entered the forest. “We’ll give them a head start, then follow, but not too closely.” He wiped at a stream of blood running down his face while he paced anxiously. A few minutes later, he turned and mounted.
Just as the men prepared to move out, something whizzed above them. Gadon ducked, then looked behind. Again came the sound, this time to his left.
“Under fire, sir!” Simon shouted.
Gadon quickly dismounted, dropped into a ball, then rolled forward. He crouched behind a boulder. “Down, Petron, down! Bruce, damn it!”
As the men sought cover, another arrow came in just over their heads.
Staying low and behind trees and boulders, they sought to determine the sniper’s whereabouts.
A couple additional arrows flew overhead. Then, the shooting stopped.
A few minutes passed. Then, as Gadon rose to his feet, the siege began again, this time from a new direction. One arrow pierced though his cloak at his shoulder, then continued down to the ground, lifting a tuft of grass before coming to rest. He dropped down.
Then, just as suddenly as it began, the shooting stopped again.
He surveyed the forest line, but couldn’t make out any movement. “Anyone see anything?”
“Negative,” Simon said.
“I can’t tell where the shots are coming from,” Bruce quipped.
“Idiot,” Gadon mumbled.
Once again, after a few still minutes, the firing resumed, this time from yet another place at the forest edge. This went on several more times. Each interval brought only a few arrows. Finally, came a lull that lasted for some time.
Gadon poked his head around the boulder that shielded him. He waved Simon forward. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
“That there’s only one shooter and that it might be over? It’s been a while now since the last shots.”
“Exactly. We’re losing time. The grut are already an hour and more ahead of us. I’ll make my way—there,” Gadon pointed. “Petron, that way,” he ordered, designating another spot.
“I’ll stay here with the others to cover you,” Simon offered.
As the men moved toward their designated destinations, the earth shook suddenly and violently. The trees swayed wildly. Bending with the wind, some snapped like twigs. Lightning burst in sudden, blinding blasts, and deafening thunder pounded. The sky turned a deep bloody red for a moment, then to a silvery, ashen gray.
“Damn it,” Gadon cursed.
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