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Chapter 5

It began with a flight of arrows from the bushes to the left of the path.  The missiles were just pieces of padded PVC tubing that didn’t fly particularly fast or accurately, but the effect was no less startling.  A guttural voice shouted “Arrows, two points!” and Jimmy and Chuck, both of whom had been hit, called back, “Arrow hit, minus two points.”  Three other arrows missed their mark, sailing harmlessly over Allison’s and TJ’s heads.  The six friends hastily retreated behind some trees, and a second round of arrows bounced off their cover.

The voice called out again, “Surrender, or die painfully!”

Allison looked over at the others and shrugged.  Peeking her head out from behind the tree, she returned, “And what happens if we surrender?”

As soon as her face was visible, a third flight of arrows flew across the path, all targeted at her.  Her eyes grew wide and she ducked back with a squeak.  Luckily they all passed by.  Stu, who had gotten his own bow out, fired an arrow of his own toward the bushes.  “Magic arrow, seven points, Accuracy Skill Mark two,” he shouted.  The arrow got caught in the bushes and just hung their limply.  Nonetheless, a figure stepped out of the bushes on the other side and called, “Accuracy hit, seven damage, dead.”  He then proceeded to stagger back and forth several times before falling to the ground with a dramatic groan. 

Stu grinned wolfishly, “Cool, huh?  A new skill I picked up with my last rank.  I’m only able to do it twice a day, though, and I’d rather not blow my second one now in a lame ambush encounter.  Not that they necessarily know that, do they?”  Louder, he shouted, “Go ahead, do that again.  Lemme see where you’re hiding.”

There were several moments of tense silence before the sound of voices in grunted conversation drifted across the distance.  Suddenly, four bodies charged out from the bushes and towards the trees where the friends crouched.  Their foes were dressed all in brown and wore hats that implied that their heads were those of wolves.  Having left their bows behind, the wolf men brandished short padded weapons that looked to be either clubs or swords, though Allison couldn’t be sure which.  Given her newness at the game and how fragile her character was, she figured it didn’t really matter which.  Whether she got stabbed or beaten to death, the end result was the same. 

Stu released another arrow, again calling out, “Magic Arrow, seven points,” this time without the accuracy skill.  The arrow flew true and the one struck in the chest said, “Arrow hit, seven damage, dead,” and fell over like his friend, mimicking the over-the-top death sequence.

Jimmy, knowing that his enormous sword was of no use amongst the trees, leapt out to meet them before they could close the entire distance.  Swinging his blade wildly over his head, he roared, “Magic Flamberge, ten points!”  The three remaining enemies, seeing his berserker headband, immediately converged upon him and tried to dodge within the radius of his swings.  Clearly concerned about Stu’s archery, they kept to the far side of the path in the hopes that Jimmy would provide them cover from arrows.    

Each of the wolf men announced, “club, two damage,” and began swinging their weapons at Jimmy, but none were able to get close enough to score on him.  Allison suddenly realized why the other boys had been so happy about the giant sword.  It seemed unlikely that any of their enemies would be able to get close enough to strike him so long as he was paying attention.  The only way they would be able to bring him down would be if they gang rushed him.  Two would certainly die, but the third might be able to do some damage. 

Stu let loose a third arrow, which passed dangerously close to Jimmy.  “Cut that out!”  He shouted, and Stu dropped his bow with a sigh.   Unfortunately, Stu had spent so many skill points on archery, his melee and armor skills were next to useless.  Because of this, rather than charging into the fray with the sword he had drawn from his back, he hung back in the hopes that Jimmy would mop them up without help. 

Chuck, on the other hand, was eager to put his new skill point in daggers and stepped out of the woods with his weapon drawn.  Jimmy’s weapon was still whistling back and forth, keeping the wolf men’s attention, so he circled around to engage their enemies from behind.  He hoped to set up a flanking position and end the battle quickly.

TJ turned to Allison to say, “Stay put.  You’re no good to us dead,” and stepped out from the trees.  “Magic missile,” he shouted in a loud voice, narrowly missing one of their enemies with a thrown bean bag.  Simon joined, threw a bean bag of his own at Jimmy’s feet, and called out, “Curse Enemy.  Minus two to all damage.”  The wolf-men looked dismayed, and Jimmy pressed the attack.  If their weapons could only do two damage, and they all suffered a minus two on each hit, their strikes would all be ineffectual.  They turned to run, but by that time Chuck had circled around them, and the two boys made quick work of their foes. 

When the NPCs had removed their hats and donned their judge armbands, Chuck again told them his search skill rank, and he was given a card indicating that they had found some small coins but nothing else of any real value.  Not even the weapons were worth keeping – it turned out those clubs were just the leg bones of some unfortunate past dinners and the bows were equally junky.  Meanwhile, Stu retrieved the arrows he had fired and placed them back into his quiver.  Allison flashed Simon a smile and said, “That was a nice trick there, though kinda anticlimactic.  How come there’s nothing to show for it but those coins?”

“Well there’s usually something along these lines in each adventure.  It’s not important to the plot, and there’s no real life-threatening danger, but the hope is that it makes the party use up some of its resources early, so when we run into something more challenging we aren’t at full power.  For instance, both TJ and I blew a spell, and though I don’t disagree with Stu’s use of his accuracy ability, that’s the sort of thing that could really come in handy later.  We took a little damage, but that’s really not a big deal, particularly with a healer handy.”

TJ interjected, “Though if we hadn’t had Stu and his bow, we might have found ourselves in a very different situation.  If I’d been setting this up, I’d have had another group ready to come at us from behind if we just hid behind the trees.  For all we know, they’re still out there, but when they saw what we did to their friends they melted back into the forest.  I agree that this was mostly just a nuisance, but it could very easily have turned into something worse.”

Simon nodded and continued, “As for loot, don’t get spoiled by that ring we found.  Most encounters don’t give much of anything.  I mean think about it.  These wolfmen jumped a bunch of armed adventurers.  They were probably pretty desperate.” 

“Well one thing’s for sure,” said Jimmy.  “This isn’t an ordinary weekend adventure.  Between Allison’s ring and the fact that they jumped us so quickly after the first encounter, this looks like it’s going to be way more intense than usual.  I expected to have a good half an hour of travelling before we ran into a fight.  We’re going to have to keep a much closer eye out for more ambushes as we go.  It may even be worth moving off of the path and into the woods as we march.  It’ll be a bit slower going, but much safer.”

Stu nodded, “I agree.  I like walking in the woods anyway.  It’s peaceful.”

There were no objections so the group set off once again.  As predicted, they weren’t able to move as quickly as when they were on the path.  Low bushes, while not dense, still grabbed at them, and fallen branches and logs provided obstacles for them to go around or climb over. 

“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all,” Chuck panted as he straddled yet another of the fallen logs.

“Yeah, this may have been a mistake,” agreed Simon.  “Garby may be a nature sprite, but I for one would much rather be running across an open field.” 

“Even pounded by tailbacks?” quipped TJ. 

Simon barked a laugh.  “No, definitely not.  This is way more fun and less painful.  I run track in the Spring though.  No tackles then.”

“Two season athlete?” Stu asked, impressed.  “I never really got the hang of organized sports.”

“Three, actually,” Simon replied.  “Dad’s got me in basketball in the winter.  Says athletics are a year-round pursuit nowadays.  Summers I’m off to camps, too.”

“Wow,” Allison put a hand on Simon’s shoulder.  “Sounds like your dad is just as wound up now as he was when he was our coach way back when.”

“Eh,” came the reply.  “I guess.”  He pulled ahead a few steps and fell silent.  Each of the friends retreated into their own thoughts. 

A large bramble patch required them to make a wide detour, and for a time the path disappeared completely from view.  None of them wanted to get lost in the woods and have to use the air horn to call for help, so they fell silent and concentrated on getting through it.  When they did finally find the trail again, they gave up being sneaky and stuck to the open ground. The sky darkened as clouds passed in front of the sun, and the path took on a greyish hue.  An unfamiliar trill floated through the air, answered by another in the distance.  Everyone in the group froze and crouched instinctively, fearing another ambush.  The calls repeated twice but there was no visible motion on either side of the path.  Stu held up a hand, pointed to himself, and made a walking motion with his fingers.

Creeping forward, his eyes scanned left and right for any sign of danger.  The ground beneath his feet was covered by a soft layer of pine needles and moss, so he made no sound as he moved.  The birds called back and forth once more, and again he froze, eyes squinting.  A light breeze passed through the trees, and the leaves rattled.  Up above, he spotted a flash of red, and this time the trill was accompanied by the sound of flapping wings receding into the distance.

The tension drained and he stood up from his crouch.  “Looks like it’s all clear, guys.  Really was a bird.  Never seen one of those before.  Must be migratory or something.”  He shrugged.  “Let’s get moving again and see what’s up next.  I can’t imagine that the doom the crazy goblin predicted was that little ambush.  We should try picking up the pace.”

The group all agreed with Stu’s assessment, and off they went again, moving a bit more quickly to make up for the time they had lost detouring around the brambles.  At some point, wagon ruts appeared on the path they were following.  “Nice touch,” TJ remarked when he finally noticed it.  “I wonder how long it took them to get those put in.  Must have taken quite a while.”

“Eh,” replied Chuck.  “We had that rain last weekend.  I bet it made the ground all nice and muddy.”

About twenty minutes later, they began to detect signs of other people.  The scent of a wood fire drifted toward them on the light breeze, and in the distance they could hear the sound of voices.  The path bent slightly to the right and when they rounded the bend they came upon a small settlement.  There were half a dozen ramshackle cottages clumped together along one side of the path.  Between several of the buildings were makeshift roofs, under which some scrawny-looking goats had taken shelter.

Two small children were playing with sticks in the dirt alongside the path, oblivious to the approaching friends.  The six stepped out fully into the clearing and Stu cleared his throat loudly.  The children looked up and squawked in alarm before running into one of the houses.  One of them shouted, “Maw!  Paw!  Soldiers!”  The door slammed behind them, leaving the adventurers turning to each other in surprise. 

Moments later a man in his mid to late twenties emerged from the house, angrily brandishing a pitchfork.  A woman’s head peered out through the cracked door.  “What are you folks doin’ here?” the man asked.  “We don’t need or want your kind here.  Go on, now.  Git.”

“Quiet, Claude,” hissed the woman through the doorway.  “Remember what happened to ol’ Clem.  Just give ‘em what they want and ask ‘em to move on.  We don’t want no trouble.”

The man - Claude, evidently - spit a clam on the ground and grumbled, “Naw, we don’t want no trouble.  But we don’t want none o’ what you folks are peddlin’ either.  You wanna take my goats this time?  Or my kids?  How ‘bout you just slit my throat and be done with it?  You’re just about there as it is.  Hmm?”

Stu looked around helplessly, clearly out of his element.  Simon stepped forward and spoke in soft tones.  “Hello, sir.  Claude, is it?  It is good to meet you, friend.”

“You’re no friend of mine, ya pointy headed freak.  You or the other one, wherever he’s from.”  He nodded toward Stu, who stood with mouth suddenly agape.  “You ain’t welcome here.  Now git.”  The woman in the doorway cringed.

Exchanging a glance with Stu, but deciding to ignore the slights, Simon continued.  “We may not be friends yet, but that’s simply because we haven’t met.”  He smiled and nodded at the rhyme.  “I think that you have mistaken us for someone else.  We mean you no harm, and we certainly don’t want any of your livestock.  Or anything of yours, except perhaps information.  We are simply travelers passing through and we have stumbled upon your town.  It is still early yet, and we plan on moving on soon.”

“That’s what your kind always says.  You’re just passing through. You don’t mean any harm.  Well here’s what I have to say to that!”  He coughed up another clam and spit just in front of Simon’s feet.  Simon looked around for backup.  JT and Chuck exchanged glances and shrugged.

At last Allison sighed and said, “Are we really going to be stopped here by some angry pitchfork wielding peasant who is at best not going to tell us anything and at worst deranged?”

The man’s eyes snapped to Allison and a visible change came over him.  His eyes widened, his jaw grew slightly slack, and he knuckled his forehead.  “M M M M’lady,” he said.  “I didn’t see you standin’ there until just now.”  He stood up straighter and said in a much more measured tone of voice, “Please forgive my gruffness.  We have suffered much at the hands of outlaws pretendin’ to be the king’s soldiers.  And at the hands of the king’s soldiers pretendin’ to be outlaws.”  Simon and Stu both looked at Allison in amazement, until they remembered the armband she was wearing that signified the powers of her ring. 

Without missing a beat, Allison replied, “There is nothing to forgive, my good man.  These are troubling times, and it is important for you to stand up for your home and your family.”

“Thank you, my lady.”  He bowed to her, and then half turned to face the house.  “C’mon, woman!  Put a kettle on and brew up some tea for her Ladyship and her servants!”

TJ smirked and muttered, “Servants?  Really?”

“Shush,” replied Allison quietly.  “Let the poor man believe what he wishes.  It’s certainly a better reception than before, so just go with it.”

During this exchange, some of the other villagers had emerged from their own dwellings, and a sorry lot they were.  It quickly became clear why Claude had stood up to them alone – no one else was in any position to help.  The next youngest was easily ten years older than Claude, and walked with a crutch under his left shoulder.  The hair on all the rest had long gone grey.  Any one of the party – including Allison – could have beaten them singlehandedly.  Each one, as they approached, bobbed their heads in Allison’s direction, and the woman’s head had been replaced by the two children in the crack of the door. 

“So can you tell us what has been bothering you of late?”  Simon tried engaging the man in conversation once again.  We fought and dispatched some wolf men not so long ago.  If they were troubling you, they are no more and you can now live in peace.”

“Wolf men?  Here?”  There was a flutter of discussion and panicked looks on their faces.  “No, there ain’t been none of them here since my great grandpa’s time.  If you really saw some in these woods, ‘tis dark news, indeed.  We have had a hard enough time scratchin’ for a livin’ with only other men to contend with, not nature’s freaks.”  He had the grace to blush, and bobbed his head toward Simon, “M’lady’s companions not included, of course.

“We have long been at the mercy of the brigands who pass through these woods.  And when the soldiers come from the king, they are just as bad.  Ain’t no justice to be gotten from them.  Everyone takes from us, they are all the same.”

Allison’s face softened, “Well why do you stay, then?  Couldn’t you find somewhere safer to live?” 

“My good wife and me and our children could move.  But where could we go?  Our only livin’ is to sell our meager wares to travelers, and occasionally provide them shelter for the night.  I ain’t got no plow, no mule, and no knowledge of farming.  Perhaps we could become beggars in some town, though I don’t believe it would be any less dangerous for us to do so.  And even if the four of us did leave, some here don’t have that sort of travellin’ in ‘em.  I can’t desert these people.  They’ve been my friends all my life.”

“If you have so little, why do the brigands continue to harass you?”

“’Cause they can.”  The statement was simple, yet powerful. 

Jimmy spoke up.  “Well, as it happens, we are pretty good at giving brigands serious beat-downs.  Perhaps this is something that we could help you with.  Where do they live, and just how many are there?”

Claude cocked his head in confusion at Jimmy’s suggestion, then shrugged.  “Usually, there are fewer than a dozen.  But even a half dozen well-armed men are more than a match for the likes of us.  They come from the north, through the woods, though it is possible that they are attemptin’ to hide their tracks.  I doubt it, though.  They are brash enough, and know we can’t do nothin’ about it.”

One of the children peeked out from behind his mother’s skirts.  “Their camp really is up north, and not too far.  Only a couple hours’ walk or so, if you hurry.”

The woman shushed him and tried to push him back behind her, but Claude replied, “You tellin’ fibs agin, Fin?  How should you know where they are?”

“Cause I followed ‘em once, Paw.  I’m real quick and real quiet too.  Remember that time I got lost and you found me wandering in the woods?”  He blushed lightly and scuffed the ground with a foot.  “I followed ‘em all the way to their camp and then came back.  I’d thought I could sneak back into bed, but when I heard you callin’ my name I knew I was gonna get caught so I pretended that I’d gotten lost.  I sure am sorry, Paw.”

The child’s mother looked horrified, and she immediately shooed him back into their hovel.  Her raised voice drifted through the walls, and though her words were unclear, her tone most certainly was not.  Claude just shook his head grimly.  “Well, there you have it, strangers.  You wanna find ‘em, that’s the direction you should head.  Not that I can really see why you’d go outta your way for us.  We ain’t got nothing to repay you with.”

An awkward silence hung for just a moment before Allison said, “You don’t need to repay us with anything but your gratitude.  We’ll see an end to these brigands so that you can live your lives in peace.”

If she was expecting a joyous reaction from the town folk, she was deeply disappointed.  They looked at her with blank faces, devoid of optimism.  Claude replied, “Well, ma’am, if you say so, we’d be much obliged to you,” and left it at that.  Evidently the charm of the ring only went so far.  It might convince them that she was an important person, but it couldn’t convince them that she was at all interested in improving their meager lot in life.  It also didn’t convince them to provide any assistance, either food or guidance.  “North, only a couple hours’ walk or so” was the extent of it.

Simon looked at Claude and said, “Is there anything else that you’d like to tell us?  I’ve a plus four to diplomatic interactions.”

The man simply stared back at him for a few moments, and then turned his back.  “Ok folks, let ‘em go about their business and let’s go about our own.  We sure got plenty to do as it is.”  This was met with muttered strains of acquiescence as the crowd dispersed.  It wasn’t long before the six friends were standing alone on the path, their only company the eye of one of the children peering through a knothole in the plank wall of his house.

“Guess a plus four wasn’t good enough to get anything, though it usually is.  Anyway, what do you guys think we should do?  This is clearly a side quest, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s something juicy at the end of it.  They wouldn’t have us tramping a couple hours off the path for no benefit, and it looks like they really spent a lot of work building up these buildings and stuff.  You want to go fight some brigands, or head off to fight whatever foozle that goblin warned us about?”

“I want to know what the hell that ‘other one’ comment was about,” muttered Stu, making air quotes with his fingers.  “I’m pretty sure I’m not paying to field insults like that.”

“That’s not normal?” Asked Allison. 

“Not out here,” he replied, fists clenched.  “Never where I could hear it, at least.”

TJ shook his head.  “Yeah, that was bizarre.  I didn’t recognize that actor.  Maybe he’s new and too gung ho with the racial stereotypes of the time?  He sure had Simon pegged.”

Jimmy patted Stu on the shoulder.  “We’ll get it all sorted out when we get back to the lodge tonight.  Don’t let one jerk ruin the whole weekend for you.”

The archer heaved a sigh.  “Ok, fine.  I’ll let it go for now.  But that wasn’t cool.  And doesn’t solve the problem of what to do next.” 

Chuck was first to answer.  “Well you know my stance on things.  Brigands mean loot.  I’m all for it.”

Stu nodded, “I agree.  I could use the XP and can’t stand knowing there are folks up to no good in the forest.  That’s two strong reasons in favor of it.”

 “Sounds like we’re all in agreement,” TJ concluded, “A quick detour to bang some heads and grab some loot and we’ll be back on track in no time!”

 After one last look around they set off through the trees.  While there wasn’t a path per se, there was clear evidence that people had been passing through that area.  Stu noticed a couple footprints in dried mud, and he pointed out places where small branches had been snapped sideways as by someone walking past them.  “Well that stands to reason,” commented Chuck.  “The NPCs had to head off this way, as well as the group in front of us, so the way should be pretty obvious.”

What was surprising was how long the journey became.  As TJ had explained to Allison earlier, long trips were typically shortened into fifteen or twenty minute walks representing days of travel.  After they had walked for an hour with no visible signs of any bad guys, the group started to become restless.

“Man, did we take a wrong turn or something?”  Chuck grumbled.  “They couldn’t have just sent us on a wild goose chase, could they?  If so, I’m gonna ask for my money back, cause this is seriously not fun.  Maybe we shoulda taken that left at Albuquerque,” saying the last in his best Bugs Bunny voice.  He groaned and sat down against a tree, taking his water skin out and having a long drink.  And my feet are starting to bug me.  I’m not used to this tramping about in the woods.  I’d much rather have nice cobbled streets under my feet.”  Allison looked at Chuck sympathetically.  Her breastplate was starting to get heavy on her, but she knew she couldn’t drop it.  Her uncle was expecting it to be returned to the theater on Sunday night, in the same condition as it had been lent.  She didn’t look forward to explaining why it was damaged or missing, and then having to chip in to get it replaced.

Stu shook his head.  “No, we didn’t miss a turn, I’m sure of that.  Look over here.”  He pointed to something on the ground.  “Do you see how that moss is pressed against the ground there?  This sort of moss typically has a much greater volume when it grows wild.  The fact that it is crushed means that someone or something stepped on it.  We haven’t lost the trail – we just haven’t walked far enough yet.”

“Woah,” said Jimmy.  “You just made that up, didn’t you?”

“Nah, of course not.  I’ve spent years in woods just like these, learning the lay of the land.  With all those brothers and sisters at home, I needed to get away a lot.  I was never much for sports and really like the peace and quiet out here.”  After a pause he continued, “I haven’t spent much time in these particular area, of course, but I recognize that moss.  It’s called Greybeard.  Grows all over the place.  It’s actually something you can make a nutritious soup out of, though I think you’d have to be pretty hard up to eat it.”

Allison grimaced.  “Greybeard soup, huh.  How appetizing.”

Stu laughed and extended a hand to Chuck, hoisting him from where he sat.  “Come on, friend.  Let’s get moving.  The sooner we get there the sooner we can give them a solid drubbing and find out what sort of loot they’ve got.  And maybe even grab a bite to eat.” 

There was vigorous head nodding at the prospect of finding food, and so the party once again set off, following Stu’s lead.  In places he pointed out other markings that suggested people had passed through there.  At times Simon nodded at what Stu pointed out, but the other three simply looked on dumbly, hoping that he wasn’t just making things up as they walked.  Another hour passed and Chuck began complaining about his feet again.  Stu cut him off with a quick “SHHH.”  Chuck gave him a pained look, but bit back his reply.

Stu looked back from where he was leading and said, “Do you hear that?”

The other four looked blankly at each other and shrugged their shoulders.  “Nope,” said TJ.

“Really?  I hear voices ahead. They sound so loud to me.”

Chuck groaned.  “You better not be pulling our legs, Stu.  I don’t think I could stand the disappointment of more walking.”

“No, I’m sure of it.  You all stay here, and I’ll be back in a few.  I’m going to go see what I can see.”  Without waiting for an answer he slipped off into the woods, quickly disappearing from view.  Those remaining behind looked at each other in confusion, and Chuck flopped back down on the ground to rub his feet.  “This greybeard is pretty comfy to sit on, in addition to making a nutritious soup.”  He chuckled and the others smiled as they sat down too.

Long minutes dragged on before Stu finally returned to their resting spot.  He gave them a grim look and said, “They are only a couple minutes away.  Like Claude said, there looks to be fewer than ten.  But they seem to know what they’re doing.  Their camp is picketed with sharp stakes, and they have at least one lookout.  There’s no way that I’ll be able to pick them off with my bow, so it’s going to be melee.  And I don’t suppose that any of them will be lower than rank three, so our dear healer won’t be able to wow them with her ring.”

The report left the group in silence for a time, until Jimmy spoke up.  Well we’ve fought two to one odds before.  It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.  And of course we’ve got some magic on our side that I’m sure our enemies don’t.  Wizards don’t go around shaking down peasants for bags of turnips.  I say we give it a whirl and see what happens.”

This made sense to the rest of the group.  Chuck seemed the one most interested in the fight, since he wanted to justify the long walk.  Allison was wary of the numbers disadvantage, since she was being counted on for a contribution.  The last battle she just scooched back and hid, and she had been looking forward to doing that again. 

"C'mon and live a little," Jimmy enthused.  “So maybe we’ll take a little damage.  Or even a lot.  No big deal!  We’ve got you, and you’ve got me!”

“Well what if I’m the one who takes a lot of damage?  I distinctly remember TJ saying I couldn’t take much.”  She looked anxiously at the other four.

Simon patted her on the arm.  “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.  Just keep Jimmy between you and any bad guys and it will all work out.”

“Exactly,” Jimmy piled on.  “I’m tough enough to take care of all of you!”

“And anyway,” chipped in Chuck, “she’s a newbie!  She doesn’t really know what’s going on anyway, so it’s not like she really even gets a vote.”  The boys all laughed and Allison had a hard time refuting that assertion, so shrugged and agreed.

The group slowly crept toward the brigand camp.  As they got closer, they all began to hear the voices Stu had pointed out earlier.  It was a mixture of boastful oaths and drunken song – it appeared that they had recently returned from roving, no doubt shaking down another pathetic group of peasants.  Within a few minutes they had arrived at the edge of a clearing, in the center of which was a rudimentary military camp.  As Stu had said, there was a wooden palisade around the camp, and one of the brigands walked the perimeter, looking out into the trees. 

“So how are we going to do this,” asked Jimmy.  “Charge the entrance and fight hand to hand inside?  We can’t wait for dark, can we?  If there’s another group or three behind us we don’t have the luxury to wait around a couple hours.  Even if only one other group decides to come this direction, they’ll be here well before dusk.”

There was much head nodding.  “Well let’s go around and take a look at the front door and see what we have to see,” said Allison.  “I still don’t have the best feeling about this, but if we’re going to do it, we should do it right.”

Stu led them a quarter of the way around, following the direction of the sentry so that they were always just behind his field of vision.  They discovered that the entrance was little more than an open space within the wall of stakes, and there was a single guard standing watch, though he looked bored with his duty.  “Perfect, a sleepy sentry at the gate and one walking the perimeter.  If we time our movement so that he’s on the opposite side that will be one less we need to deal with at the outset.”  Jimmy looked pleased.  “With luck I’ll be able to take out several of them before he’s able to get back around and join in the fight.  That should help even the odds a bit.  And once we’ve gotten in, Stu can always take that one out with his bow.”

It wasn’t the most brilliant of tactical plans, but everyone agreed that it would do the trick.  They shifted around another eighth of the circle so that they were out of direct view of the guard at the gate.  They hoped that they could get all the way to him before he saw them.  Ideally, they would be able to cut him down before he could raise the alarm. 

Just as the roving sentry passed around the curve of the fence and out of sight, the six crouch-ran across the clearing to the wall.  No leaves had blown into the clearing so their treads were silent on the soft grass.  Hugging the wall, they slowly crept toward the open gate and the unsuspecting sentry.

“Hey!  What’s that?  Intruders!”  A voice rang out through the clearing, and all six heads snapped around and looked toward the trees.  A man stood there, a bow in hand and a deer draped across his shoulders.  He shrugged the carcass off and calmly placed an arrow to his bow.  He released the string and the arrow streaked across the distance, striking Simon squarely in the chest. 

“OOF,” he wheezed as he dropped backwards, the air compressed from his lungs.  Dazed, he leaned against the wall, blinking slowly as he looked down and saw the arrow – a real arrow – protruding from his chest, blood slowly trickling out.  Pain shot through his body.  His eyes rolled back in his head and he sank into merciful oblivion.

Next Chapter: Chapter 6