The underground tunnel was the smallest I’d ever seen. Considering that our sleeping quarters were guarded, we were lucky that the jailers got drunk and forgot to lock us in the night we’d hoped to escape. We waited until what we thought were early morning hours before tiptoeing past two sleeping guards. We had no idea where the rest were stationed, but we crossed our fingers that we could sneak past them all.
Colwen lead us through the cellars, Doughty opened the secret door, and Athor used his low-slung body to lead the way. Little John, being a hobbit, only had to bend a little, but the rest of crawled on hands and feet. The cellar tunnel was disgusting. It stunk of stale water and rat droppings. Slime lined the walls and stale water pooled on the floor. In two spots the tunnel was so small that even Athor barely got through, him having to pass through like we had been doing. We literally moved on our bellies.
We came out in the stables just as dawn was breaking, as hoped. Colwen and Doughty saddled up our mounts that the guards had confiscated, while Little John wrapped their hooves in rags. Athor found our bedrolls and saddlebags, still full of supplies, stuffed in an empty stall. I nosed around the head groomsman’s office and found a variety of useful weapons which I carried in my arms until they could be strapped onto our mounts.
We headed for Rea Forest because it’s a great source of meat and well-overhung by dense trees, which at this time of year, were covered in dark green leaves the size of a large man’s hand. The terrifying problem was that strange and frightening things lived there. We’d heard tales of giant spiders, but none of us had ever seen either them or their webs.
I’d seen wargs which have tusks that could rip a man’s middle out of him before a blink of an eye. They weren’t tall, but wide as a dairy cow. Beady eyes and small brains. Wargs were said to be spirits of sailors who died on land.
I smelled the rank odor of Orcs who must have passed through recently. They were taller than the tallest known man. Shoulders broader than two doorways and feet as big as plows. Hands that could squeeze the life out of two men at once. What was spooky about orcs, though, was that they only had one eye and no nose. They were thought to be smarter than wargs, which was why Walerian loved them. He taught many to read and write and when their skills were passable, he sent them out as spies into neighboring kingdoms.
Before entering the forest, Doughty said, “Touchfire, can you disguise us as we ride?”
I nodded. “I think so, but I’m not very good. My wards are better. I can surround us with an invisibility ward that should keep wargs and orcs away.”
Doughty nodded. “Well, at least it’s something. Do we have to ride close together for it to work?”
I closed my eyes thought about it for a bit. My mentor snickered the last time I tried to become invisible, but he’s a powerful wizard. Orcs and wargs have no wizardry skills that I know of. “Yeah, we’d better stay as close to one another as possible. Also we should mask anything that might jingle.”
“I have already done that,” Doughty said as he climbed onto his horse.
I didn’t need wands or powders for my magic to work, but I did need incantations. I spread my hands wide, encompassing the group than chanted, “Ing spe do nobly.” Nothing changed. I could still clearly see everyone. “Little John, since you’re still on foot, walk over by the burnt tree.”
After five steps there was a wave of light and then Little John’s figure brightened noticeably. “Now return,” I said. It was obvious when he came into range, for again there was a blast of light. I smiled. “We’re okay.”
We headed into the forest somewhat confidant that we could not be seen, but we didn’t take any chances. Wherever possible, we sought cover from any eyes that might be watching, whether emissaries from the castle or strange beings that might crush us. We didn’t ride fast fearing noise that would give our position away, but we did move steadily.
The forest towered blocked out the early morning sun, making us feel somewhat better. However, disturbing noises assaulted us from all sides. Some we hoped were birds, others we feared were prey animals, but most sounded like the snuffling of wargs and the grunting of orcs.
Athor wanted to ride ahead to scout out the area as he was feeling nervous, even though he knew that as soon as he rode beyond my reach, he would be easily visible by any and all that might want to harm us. Fearful that his departure might cause a ruckus, we pulled out our weapons. I had a well-used light-weight sword, which was just as well, as I wasn’t too skilled in battle techniques. In fact, if you could only pick one companion on a journey like this one, you’d be better off leaving me behind.
The longer Athor stayed away, the louder the snuffling noises became. The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention, and I gripped my sword so tightly that my fingers turned white.
We rode on and on, trying not to think too much about what might be out there and why Athor had not come back. We grew tired and hungry, but Little John would not let us stop until he recognized big droppings. Gigantic droppings. The droppings of Orcs. And not just a couple, but lots.
And intermingled among those droppings were small dropping. Piles of perfectly round droppings. Wargs. That’s when I knew we were in trouble. No, worse than that: in mortal danger especially since there was nowhere to hide. No handy cave, no standing remains of a house, no copse of thick trees. Absolutely nowhere that Orcs and wargs couldn’t find us.