The next morning the group took a breath of air as they went forward on their journey. The plain was quiet and flat as before, broken only by scattered boulders jutting sharply from the ground. The wind blew, but it was an almost silent sound.
They urged their horses forward at a gentle gallop, Eitan flying a short distance away. The horses were gradually get used to riding with a fanged beast overhead.
That night on the plain, with the fire lighting up the circle of friends, they all discussed where they were to head next as they munched on the bones of the conies they had managed to shoot down. Eitan was off hunting deer, and the horses grazed peacefully only a few feet away.
“The raiders are blazing paths over ranges that were before left alone,” Rylan was saying as he ate, “My guess is that before they didn't figure them worth their notice, but now they see the advantage of wiping out the little men who live alone in secluded villages. With no one to protect them, they wipe out, actually, a good number of potential soldiers of the cause.”
They all listened intently, especially Alexis.
Rylan took up a stick and began drawing in the dirt. “Now, from what I've heard, and the few villages that I've seen left ruined myself, I'd say that the major trails are here and here, to this side of the Sindrin range, and here at the Redrin desert region.”
At the Redrin region he drew a trail that spread out like crooked, misplaced fingers. Upon the Sindrin range the trail spread over the dry mountains like so many ant trails.
“The ones pressing west are nearest us, obviously....” The stick drew more lines, fingered trails going around an oblong shape.
“What's this part?” Alexis asked, pointing to the blob.
“That's the Cursed Willows,” Resen answered. “Granted, they weren't always cursed.”
Rylan nodded. “This is as far as I've heard the trails to come. Even they don't dare go in there—not that they have any reason to. So that's what we have to deal with.” Rylan sat back, tossing his stick aside.
They all looked at it thoughtfully as they chewed.
“I say we strike from the side,” Resen said suddenly. “We cut off their advance. Sure, some will go on west—perhaps—but if we work backwards, we ruin their trails and their resources. They get what they can when they plunder, but not all are going to have what they need.”
“He's right,” Raena said, leaning forward and taking the stick. “If we strike here, first, along this northern finger, we ruin their steady advance northwest. Then if we move swiftly enough, we can strike the main trail near the tip, and move along east.”
Alexis rocked on her feet, angry and sympathetic for those who were losing their homes, their loved ones, everything they had—what little it even was. “I'm sure we'll decide our next course when we get there,” she stated finally. “We must concern ourselves with this first, and only hope that others will do what they can. And once we get to the south, we can then deal with Fauzazge.”
“So that settles it then?” Rylan asked, putting down his bowl and relaxing back, ready for bed.
“Yes. We can start off tomorrow.”
“I rather feel like a good raid myself,” Raena stated, taking out her slender sword and polishing it with a rag.
Rylan lifted his cup. “To the raid for the Free People!”
The morning dawned upon the three riders galloping swiftly across the plain and a karaki overhead. Every now and then he swooped down close to the grasses, turning them into a churning mass. He softly bellowed his welcome to the morning.
Alexis looked back at the others with a smile as the wind whipped around her face. They returned the gesture as the horses thundered over the grasses. She lifted her face as the rising sun's dusky golden rays fell, and for a brief time she was lost in the warmth and peace of the moment. It would be many miles before they left the plains, and into the the vast mountainous desert of the middle east. The Eastern Midlands stretched for leagues beyond leagues, almost unchanging, before they bordered on the dark moors of Glalthen.
The trail went on, the hours blurring together with the endless travel and brief meals. The days hadn't been long before the group drew near their chosen area of destination. Here the farthest two raiding trails to the Redrin Regions' southernmost border reached, new and old bands continually being fed from the ceaseless ranks from Zothrael.
Coming upon the scene, the party slowed their tread and cautiously blended with the terrain.
At different points on a ridge, they peered down into the gorge below. The gorge functioned as a smoother passage to the southern border, the alternative being the uneven, rocky miles to be covered.
A train of ravogs and a few caravans moved along it, the front end of the group about fifty yards away, to the northwestern end. They were mounted on knarl'ims, heavy, grisly hogs large enough to carry several mounts. Rylan counted heads from behind his hiding place and Raena counted weapons. Resen judged the layout of the situation.
After a moment they crawled farther out of sight, and slunk away to the rear of the train, and crouched behind the rocks. Resen turned toward the sky, and made a motion with his hand. A dark form moved in the heights. Resen turned to Raena and Rylan, who both had their bows out, strung and ready. They nodded to him. He nodded back.
All together they rose and began to fire rapidly upon the ravogs, the strings singing sharply as they arrows were released. They brought down twelve men before the Ravens even got their bearings, and then they dodged along the rocks, shooting as they fleetingly passed. The ravogs were roaring in confusion and anger, trying to pinpoint their attackers.
They appeared again, more spaced out, and loosed their arrows again. More ravogs screamed and shouted, some falling off their horses as they clutched arrows protruding from their flesh, others stumbled dazedly with shafts sticking from their faces.
Others ran for cover, falling with garbled yells as an arrow embedded itself in their backs. Arrows were fired back at the mysterious assailants, only to fly pass them, shatter against the rocks, or miss altogether as the mysterious attackers dodged back to safety.
The front of the train began to turn back to aid the rear when there was a bellow, and they spun back about. Their skin blanched and their eyes filled with fear as a gigantic black beast dove upon them, jaws agape. It let out a ferocious, snarling roar, and Alexis unsheathed her sword.
The ravogs screamed as the two rushed upon them, and teeth and talons tore ravogs from the saddles. The horses and hogs screeched and screamed in terror, their eyes rolling as they tried to escape.
Eitan dove upon the men again, ripping them screaming and terrified from their saddles and carrying them into the air before dropping them onto their brethren.
The others flashed from rock to rock firing as they went. When Eitan had rushed upon the ravogs from the front, all turned to maddened mayhem. Resen, Raena, and Rylan rushed down from the ridge below, pebbles and dirt falling as they skidded down and leapt from the rocks. Swords flashed as they rang out from their sheaths. Resen and Raena fell upon the Ravens with a vengeance, and Rylan flourished his scimitar as he took his multi-bladed throwing knife out of his belt, and flung it through the air. It struck a ravog with a sickening thud, who flew backwards without even uttering a scream.
Resen lunged at a ravog and beheaded him with a swing; landing on his feet, he whirled around, embedding his sword into another's midsection. He shoved the ravog away as he jerked his sword out of his flesh.
Raena sparred with a ravog, her sword whipping around as it sung. She blocked an overhead cut, then a swift side cut. Forcing the swords upward, she yanked her dagger from her belt and stabbed him in the stomach. The ravog's face drained of all color and he fell to the ground.
Another ravog lunged at her with a savage snarl, whipping his knife at her neck. Raena ducked and swung her sword up as he went pass. He crumpled onto the ground. She slashed at the back of another to her left, and as he fell she saw Rylan not ten feet away swinging his scimitar and slashing with a strange weapon on his hand. It was a bar that went over the knuckles, attached with razor sharp claws. Rylan slashed and swung like a vicious wildcat.
Rylan ducked, swinging at a ravog's legs. As the ravog went down, Rylan gave him a vicious upwards slash with his claws, then spun around and leapt on another, burying his scimitar into his heart. He glanced up to see Eitan swoop over him, snatching ravogs off their feet and rending with his claws. Arrows flew at him, some piercing through his wings. He roared and dove upon them, tearing among them. A couple arrows protruded from his hind leg, and one on the other side, on his shoulder.
Eitan was tingling with battle hunger. As he drew up close to an outcropping in the ravine wall, Alexis leapt onto it before he passed. She propelled herself off the outcropping, and dove into the fray, wielding Wolvring and her dagger. Eitan landed, and rushed into the mayhem. The few horses ran every which way, abandoning their riders, as hogs either fled or fought with chaotic, screeching abandon. Horses galloped out of the ravine screaming at the top of their lungs.
Alexis spun and kicked out, catching her opponent in the stomach. With a twisting motion she stabbed him with her dagger. She yanked it out, turned, and hurled it into the heart of another.
Alexis took two steps, locked blades with a ravog, then swung at his legs. He jumped and Alexis batted his sword aside, twisted around and grabbed the dagger from the heart of the dead ravog, then twisted back, embedding it into her assailant's neck before he could recover.
Two ravogs rushed at her from opposite sides, and just as they reached her she ducked as their swords swung. One sword caught the other in the throat, and Alexis swept Wolvring at the one still standing. He fell, and Alexis finished him off with a quick stab. He let out a choked groan and went silent.
She looked to her left, and saw a ravog fall onto Resen, then slip to the ground, sliding off Resen's bloodied sword. Farther behind him, Raena beheaded one Raven and stabbed another. Rylan, ten feet to her right, kicked one in the stomach and slashed him down the chest. The ravog screamed as he felt with a thrash.
All of a sudden it grew quiet, the sound of the fleeing hogs and horses dying away. It was only then that they realized they had done it. The job was finished. The ravogs lay everywhere, their blood staining the dry ground. Eitan stood near the back of the ravine, quivering from the blood rushing through his veins. He let out a brief triumphant roar, and shook his wings.
They all looked at each other, and Resen nodded. “It's done.”
They picked their way through the mass of bodies, cleaning their blades as they went and gathering arrows. Shortly after they began going through one of the caravans that had broken away from the horses. It was filled with tents, food, and weapons.
“We don't need tents, it'd just be extra luggage,” Resen stated, throwing it back into the caravan. “But we could take those.” He picked up some daggers and looked them over, and unsheathed them. He tested the edges. He tossed a blunt one back in. Rylan and Alexis looked at the daggers as well, and tucked a couple into their belts.
“These will be useful,” Raena said, looking over some arrows. They were tainted, typical of all Raven arrows. She grabbed a heap and arranged them neatly in her quiver.
“That would be interesting—killing Ravens with their own arrows. If found, there will be hell to pay among the ranks,” Rylan stated.
“Then let's take them,” Alexis said chuckling, putting some into her8 own quiver.
The night was quiet. Only a little moonlight filtered through the trees onto the trail. The Ravens moved along quietly, the one caravan rumbling in the middle of the group. The wind made a low sound through the leaves.
There was the slightest ruffle. All of a sudden a ravog cried out, whipping backwards in the air. A black arrow protruded from his back. Then another, and another arrow flew through the air, both finding their mark. All started shouting. There were slight ruffles from the bushes here and there as the wind picked up, and more arrows flew. The ravogs shot at the slightest movement, but their arrows were futile. Whining missiles continued to fly in every direction. A curved blade twirled through the air as it was flung from the brush, and it embedded itself into the heart of a ravog, who screamed and fell dead. The last fighters fell, clutching arrows protruding from their chests, or falling to their knees then on their face as they were struck in the back. In just those few moments it was over.
The foursome stepped out of the bushes and retrieved arrows. Alexis freed and cleaned her Langorean blade. They disappeared, making now for the southwest. The bodies were left as they were.
The band of twenty ravogs were cantering fast along the trail east on strong knarl'ims. There was no caravan. Collected booty was in bags, which were straddled over the horses' backs and tied to their saddles. One rider, at the edge of the group, caught the sound of running hooves that were not their own. He looked to his left. In a clearing in the hills Resen appeared at full charge, and loosed an arrow straight into the ravog's face.
The ravog screamed, and the hog, terrified by its rider's cry, shrieked angrily and lashed about. The sudden movement caused the charge behind to collide, and they too bucked and reared back, crying out in alarm. The ravogs shouted and cursed in confusion and anger.
Alexis, Raena, and Rylan rushed up galloping at full speed, loosing their arrows. The bowstrings released with a sharp twang, and the missles found their marks. The ravogs screamed. Those not struck turned viciously onto their attackers, unsheathing scimitars and long daggers.
The others unsheathed their swords and clashed, but just as metal screamed against metal, a scream not of their kind filled the air, and they looked up to see Eitan diving from the sky, and lift hogs and riders off the ground, strangling and rending them before he let them drop back to the ground.
Alexis and Raena fought back to back, valiantly fending off ravogs with their blood-lusting blades. Alexis flung the knife of her attacker away and dealt him a swift stab through the heart. Raena's sword rasped against the scimitar of the mounted Raven before her, as he blocked her overhead strike. As the blades pressed downward with the force of her strike, Raena whipped her sword back up in a curve, and brought it down on the Raven's head. There was a sickening thud and he fell to the ground, blood spurting from the crack in his skull. Maddened by the smell, the knarl'im snort and screamed, tearing and biting as it took off.
Resen sparred with a ravog that had come up alongside him, and as he went for a jab in the ribs the Raven gave him a swift punch that sent him over the saddle. Resen landed with a heavy thud, but was back on his feet in a moment. Wild-eyed and snorting, the knarl'im turned on Resen, and he smashed down on its neck, sidestepping.
The ravog attacker plunged his his scimitar toward Resen even as he dove to the ground. Resen took the opportunity and swung his sword and dagger as he spun himself away. The blades sliced through the goblin's flesh and he screamed, colliding into the ground.
Five more towering ravogs lunged at Resen, and Resen swung his blade with such force it went through the first Raven, and the Raven fell back, almost thrown onto his comrade. Resen's great sword flashed in the sun as it did its work swiftly, and rasped savagely as it slashed against rough blades.
A ravog pulled back his arm to fling a dagger into Resen's back, but Rylan, a few feet away, snatched out his throwing knife, sending it forward into the ravog's throat. The ravog wobbled, dropping his knife before collapsing.
Resen nodded to Rylan in thanks, then swung at a ravog who was rushing him. The ravog couldn't bring up his long dagger fast enough to block the blow, before his head was swept from his body.
Two dismounted ravogs were running. Eitan landed upon them and clutched one with his talons, pinning him. He flexed his muscles and there was a crunch as the ravog's spine broke. To the other Eitan reached out and snapped up in his jaws. He gave him a brief crunch then indifferently flung him away. The ravog crashed against a tall boulder and fell to the ground, every bone crushed. Eitan turned to the remaining wounded knarl'im, which he ate hungrily.
Everyone quickly examined and tended to their wounds. Resen had a gash on his hand and cut on his shoulder and side. Rylan had a cut along the side of his calf, and Raena's hand and collarbone was bleeding.
Alexis wiped away the blood on her face that was trickling from a cut in her temple. She had cuts on both of her hands, but neither were serious.
“We were rather lucky,” she said aloud, as she walked to the loot bags on the body of a dead, ragged horse. Resen nodded silently. They went to work gathering arrows and their daggers, cleaning them on the grass, and going through the spoil bags.
Alexis felt something cold and gripped it. When she brought it out, she saw it was a small golden figurine of half goat, half human creature holding a sword against its chest. Resen looked over at her and the figurine caught his eye. He came over and took it in his hand.
“That's Sindrin work,” he said, turning it over in his hand. “This band, obviously, has visited the area...unless they're looting their own bands.”
Rylan was ruffling through the bags and looking at the valuable objects. “There's definitely two headquarters,” he said.
“Yes. The band we attacked last night had different apparel. They sported crow feathers, along with the raven ones.”
“They look so grotesque,” Alexis said distastefully, making a slight face as she kicked a body over. “I thought the armored ravogs at Ethen'dor looked bad. I think I'd rather see them with their skull helmets than their plain skin.”
“Strange to remember they were once human,” Resen commented, looking at the dead.
Alexis looked at him, mulling over the thought. Her gaze roved over him, and Raena and Ash, wondering at their own possible capacity for becoming such an ugly evil. She found it hard to imagine.
That night they camped at the base of a cluster of boulders, just a short way from the cliffside drop into a canyon. They had a nice, small fire from dry grasses. They laughed lightly as they told each other stories and jokes, as their horses grazed within the fire's light. The conversation turned to Shalgotha, and Rylan wondered if he had gotten word already of Alexis's capture and escape. No doubt the small group that had taken her had sent off a couple messengers before Alexis had been released.
“I don't know,” Resen said musingly, chewing on a root. “He won't be so straight forward as before, whatever he does. He knows another try would be almost futile. He’ll need a better strategy this time.”
Alexis nodded. She and Eitan wouldn't be caught so easily again...especially Eitan. Being tied down was a wound to his pride, and he had paid the ravogs back amply.
“Whatever they will be, we can possibly thwart them by just stopping the raids, period, as was our plan,” Resen said as he began to polish his sword. “But I doubt it at the same time.... Crow will be too smart. We'll just have to take care of our actions...in case they're leading us, in some way.” Alexis nodded. She smiled and gave a nudge to Rylan. “If I'm captured again, you'll rescue me again, won't you?” she asked.
Rylan made a mock expression of incredulous hurt. “You would doubt me? You wound me, milady. How could I resist?” He grinned broadly.
“We'll storm the castle,” Resen said, with a companionable smile as he chuckled, shaking his head. “But I retain the right to carry you out.”
“Or die trying,” Raena put in. Everyone laughed.
Alexis grinned. The sense of companionship was precious. They were all one. There was nothing to fear.