Hunter was now even more confused. The last hour of travel along the banks of the river gave him ample opportunity to ponder the situation. He had already come to the conclusion that the people whom he saw shortly before he and the other three left for who knew where, must have belonged to the torched village. The sadness, the smell of char which clung around them, all indicated the two must be related.
But what happened? Assuredly, the number of people who once lived there must have numbered more than what he had already encountered. His initial theory that they might be a cult was beginning to fade in the logic of the situation. He seriously doubted they were cultists. What they really were still eluded him, but one thing was certain, they had recently gone through a traumatic experience. Of that he was sure.
However, that still didn't explain his presence or how he even arrived. Wherever he was, it was very far from civilization. The town looked like something out of an old history book. No sign of power poles, sewers, or any of the other trappings which one would associate with modern times. The thought that they may be kin to the Amish came to mind. Perhaps some sect of theirs with even more of a traditional and isolationist mentality.
Whatever the reason, no matter how nice they seemed, the fact remained that he had been brought there against his will, and they were in no small part involved. He had been kidnapped, no way around it. He must get away before becoming mired in whatever troubles they were having.
The moon and stars lit the way as they made their way quickly along the banks of the river. If it wasn't for the man with the bow, he would have already made a break for it. But the thought of a feathered shaft impaling him through the back kept him docile. At least for the moment.
The four men he was walking with talked quietly amongst themselves. A couple times they made attempts to include him in their conversation, but after several fruitless endeavors, ceased trying. He was too engrossed with his own thoughts to try and figure out what they were saying anyway.
After another couple hours of walking on the uneven banks of the river, Hunter's feet were complaining. The shoes he wore, while comfortable in his day to day activities, left much to be desired when traversing across rock and root strewn ground in the dark. Both ankles hurt and he thought a blister may be forming on one of his big toes.
When they came to where the river passed through a small clearing, the man with the bow suddenly stopped and raised his hand. Hunter and the others came to a stop as well. "What?" he asked.
"Shhh!" the man with the bow said to him. Then the bowman turned his attention to Father Thomas, and after a brief exchange, hurried forward alone.
Hunter glanced to Father Thomas who in turn spoke to him. When he paused with an expectant look, Hunter shrugged and nodded.
Father Thomas nodded in return then turned his attention back to the trees through which the man with the bow had disappeared. The old man as well as the young also held their attention fixed on where the man had disappeared.
Hunter eyed to the trees, and when the bowman did not immediately reappear, came to the conclusion that this may be his only chance. So edging ever so slowly toward the trees he began putting distance between himself and the others. Just when he was about to turn and flee, the old man glanced in his direction. Hunter froze.
"Here now," Father Thomas heard Ogger say. Turning his gaze from the trees, he saw that the stranger was now some distance away from them. He was about to ask what he was doing when the stranger gestured toward his groin and indicated his desire to relieve himself. Father Thomas nodded which prompted the stranger to turn and head toward the nearest tree.
"We need to stay together," Ogger said quietly to Father Thomas. "It isn't safe for him to go off on his own. Lurri said those who have our people are not too far away."
Father Thomas moved his gaze from the stranger to Ogger. "He's only answering the call of nature," he replied. "And besides, Lurri said it was a mile or more to their camp. I seriously doubt if they would have anyone out this far."
"You never know," said Kyle.
After first glancing toward where Lurri had disappeared into the trees, Father Thomas returned his gaze to where the stranger was taking care of nature's business. When he failed to see him, he gestured for the younger man Kyle to make sure he was okay.
Kyle hurried over and quickly disappeared into the trees only to emerge a moment later. "He's gone!" he exclaimed.
"Damn!" cursed Ogger. "I knew it!"
"Lady protect him," Father Thomas quickly prayed. Then to the other two he said, "We must find him."
They were just about to begin the search when Lurri appeared from out of the trees at a run. In his hand he held his bow and an arrow. "They're coming!" he said. Pausing, he turned, put arrow to string, then fired into the dark back the way he had come. A cry was heard indicating the arrow had found its mark.
Turning back, he quickly scanned the area then asked, "Where's the stranger?"
Pointing off in the direction which the stranger was last seen, Father Thomas started to explain when Lurri grabbed him by the shoulder and propelled him in that direction. "Pardon Father," he said. "But there isn't time for talk." As if to accentuate the point, the sound of men crashing through the forest began to be heard.
"Go!" Ogger urged as Lurri took the lead. Making sure Father Thomas was moving quickly before him, the old man followed with Kyle right behind. No sooner had they entered the forest and the river disappeared behind them, than shouts from the river's edge broke the stillness of the night. To their fear, more shouts answered from deeper in the forest ahead.
Lurri had another arrow in hand but thus far didn't have a target at which to shoot.
"We must find the stranger," urged Father Thomas. "Our people have no hope without him."
With a glance over his shoulder, Lurri nodded. It was unlikely the stranger would head toward the sounds of the enemy. So altering course away from them, he led their group deeper into the forest.
After giving them the slip, Hunter quickly found a thicket in which to hide and hunkered down. Looking out from between two bushes, he saw that the one with the bow had rejoined the other three and they were searching for him. It was after they had raced past his hiding place that he heard the sounds of others in the woods. Not knowing if they were friend or foe, he remained where he was.
As he laid low in the thicket, the forest back toward the river began to brighten. Through the trees, he saw dozens of men moving about, some bearing burning torches. If he had harbored any hopes that it might have been the police, they were dashed when he saw the men holding the torches.
They were of average height and dressed like someone you would find at a medieval renaissance faire. Dressed in brown leather armor with a steel helmet, each wore a sword at their hip while a couple carried bows.
He obtained a really good look at them when a group of nine broke off from those by the river and entered the woods to follow after Father Thomas and the other three. They passed very close to his hiding spot but failed to realize he was there. As they passed, he overheard them speaking in an unfamiliar language. It might possibly be the same as that spoken by those he had been traveling with, but he couldn't be sure. Remaining where he was, Hunter watched and listened.
After the men moved off, he glanced back toward the river and saw light from at least two torches moving about. There had to be over fifty men out there, each dressed in armor and bearing swords.
Try as he might, he couldn't make sense of it all. Again and again he tried to recall the events back at the theater and what happened prior to his awakening in the cabin. In the back of his mind he briefly entertained the idea that he was no longer on Earth, but dismissed it as having watched too much television.
Could I have had an accident? A seizure maybe? Perhaps I'm lying unconscious in some hospital bed having a narcotic induced hallucination. If so, why can't I be having one of lovely ladies on a sunny beach?
As much as he liked the idea that this may all be a dream, he couldn't bring himself to believe it. Everything was much too clear and detailed. Reaching down, he used his hand to scoop up some pine needles and dirt from the ground. Yes, he thought to himself as the smell of pine and earth came to him, much too real.
He waited in the thicket until the men congregating by the river began to move off downriver. Once they were gone and the forest was once more dark, he emerged. Somehow, he had to get out of here. But which way?
Upriver led to the burned out village where he had awakened. Moving downriver would run the risk of encountering the armed men who had just left. The thought of entering the forest and moving laterally scarred him too. He was no woodsman and it was a certainty that he would quickly become lost in such a dark and close place.
After several minutes of indecision, he made up his mind to follow, at a distance, the group of men who had just moved off downriver. It was taking a chance, true, but there was always a possibility they could lead him to civilization. As he moved toward the river to follow the group of men, he carefully made his way through the underbrush, working to keep as silent as possible.
Every sense was alert for the presence of others. Upon reaching the riverbank, he looked downriver and saw the glow from the torches held by the men. Trying his best to shadow the men without giving away his presence, he continued downriver after them.
He hadn't gone very far when the sound of men crashing through the underbrush came to him from deeper within the forest. Pressing himself against the bole of a nearby tree, he held still as three men emerged from the trees some distance downriver from him. They were on their way toward the river. In the darkness, he couldn't see them very well, but could tell they were moving fast.
Then from deeper in the forest, light appeared as more men began approaching. One of the men paused and glanced back. Whispering to the other two, he pointed to the water. In a matter of seconds, the three men were at the water's edge and quickly began making their way across to the other side.
Hunter remained immobile as the other group of men drew closer. In the light of their torches, he saw that they were part of the armed larger group. A dozen boiled out from the forest and one was quick to discover the three in the water. Shouts sprang up as all but two of the men entered the river to follow. The two remaining on the shore, each bore a bow and quickly put arrow to string. As soon as their arrows were in place, they drew a bead on the three men in the water and fired.
He stood there in shocked silence as the bowmen pulled another arrow from quivers across their backs and readied another shot. These men were not part of some medieval club or faire! Hunter watched in fearful shock as the two bowmen loosed their second volley. A cry from the river said one of their deadly missiles had scored a hit.
Straining his eyes, he sought the three men in the moonlight. When he saw forms beginning to climb from the river on the far side, there were now only two. In a flash they raced from the riverbank and entered the forest on the far side.
The two bowmen had loosed another round of missiles before the two men had managed to disappear into the trees. Now with bows held high over their heads, they began entering the water to follow their fellows in pursuit.
Hunter remained frozen against the bole of the tree until the men had crossed and the light from their torches had disappeared into the forest on the far side. They killed the man! True he had no definite proof the man was dead, but there could be no other explanation. Is that what will happen should they find me? The forest suddenly was an even more fearful place than what it had been. Visions of arrows flying from the dark only to impale him from behind had him looking over his shoulder constantly.
"I have to get out of here!" he said to himself. All thoughts of following the men downriver vanished. Turning about he began heading back upstream. Those people back at the village may have had a hand in his kidnapping, but at least they hadn't tried to kill him. At the moment, they were the lesser of two evils.
As he walked, his mind began putting pieces of this crazy puzzle together. First, there was a village that had been burned to the ground. The people of the village were extremely distraught. Now there were men, soldiers by the looks of them, who were killing people. It didn't take a genius to deduce that the soldiers may have been the ones to have destroyed the village. After all, they were moving away from there and had a decided lethal attitude.
Could his presence within the village have something to do with it? The robed one who called himself Father Thomas had taken him south along the river. Along the very course these men were taking. Why? It was obvious these men with armor were better equipped than anyone he had seen in the village. Were they going to hand him over to placate them? Did they expect him to defeat their enemies? He would have chuckled at the thought if he wasn't already caught up in a situation that could very well mean his life.
Moving alongside the river, he ran as fast as he could. It wasn't easy as the terrain was hilly, wild, and the forest grew right up to the river. Fear propelled him. His ankles that once had merely ached were now protesting quite painfully. His arms, face, every exposed piece of skin began to sting as he forced his way through the underbrush.
Imagined enemies were behind every bush. All thoughts of trying to move silently steadily gave way to the overriding fear that was taking away his reason. He had to get away! Every step was one more step away from the deadly arrows. Every step was another step away from meeting the same fate as the man who failed to emerge from the river. So intent was he on getting away, so overwhelming was his fear, that he failed to hear the sound of men converging on his position.
When the voice shouted, he glanced back over his shoulder and saw four men racing through the darkened woods after him. Panic seized him and he ran for his life. Dodging around trees and through bushes that left red lines of pain along his skin, he fled.
Behind him, the man called out again, most likely ordering him to stop. But so consuming was the fear he felt that all the man's cries did was fuel the panic which held him. Glancing back over his shoulder again, he saw the four men hot on his trail. Then as he turned back to continue his flight, a partially exposed root snagged his foot causing him to fall head first into the trunk of a rather large and sturdy tree. With a crack, the lights went out.
In between the trunks of fallen trees, two men hid. Around them they could hear the sound of movement throughout the forest. Voices called to each other indicating that the hunt was still on.
Where the stranger was Father Thomas hadn't a clue. Alone with Ogger, he sent his prayers silently up to Casdralla. One for Lurri who had fallen before they made it to the river, impaled by two arrows. Another for Kyle who had entered the river with them but hadn't emerged. His hopes of seeing him again were slim. Lastly, he prayed that the stranger would escape the enemy and be able to affect the release of his people.
"I think they may be moving off," Ogger whispered, intruding upon the priest's silent prayers.
Father Thomas brought his prayers to a quick close and then listened. It took but a moment for him to agree that it sounded as if those searching for them were beginning to move away.
"What should we do Father?" the old man asked.
"I...I do not know," he replied. Then, "We must still search for the stranger and hope he has not yet been captured."
Ogger peered over the fallen trunks and could see the light from the searcher's torches moving away through the trees. "Do you even know where we are?" he asked.
Father Thomas shook his head. "No," he answered. "I am so turned around I couldn't even tell you which way the river lay."
Pointing off to their right, Ogger said, "The river's that way."
As Ogger stood, Father Thomas came to his feet as well. "The stranger has to still be on the other side," he stated. Glancing to the old man, he added, "We are going to have to make our way back across."
"I thought you might think that," replied Ogger. Off to their left the light from the searchers' torches was now all but obscured by the trees and bushes of the forest. "At least they're moving away from the river."
Emerging from their hiding place they began working their way back toward the river. Straining every step of the way for the sound of another's approach, they safely reached the bank of the river. Above, the moonlight filtering through the forest canopy gave the flowing water and the area adjacent to it an ominous feel. Their imaginations turned shadows into attackers which did little to assuage their fear.
They found the river to be narrower than the place where they had crossed earlier. Much too deep for them to safely make it across in the dark. Ogger pointed upriver and said, "I think we crossed further that way."
"Very well," agreed Father Thomas. "Let us hurry."
Moving out, Ogger took the lead. Clutched in his hand was a thick section of limb that he came across while hiding. Though not very affective against bows or swords, it at least bolstered his courage and allayed somewhat the fear he was feeling.
They kept to the riverbank while working their way upstream to find a suitable place to ford. In the forest all around them on both sides of the river, lights were seen moving through the forest as the enemy continued their hunt. Father Thomas sent another prayer to his goddess that they would be able to avoid the searchers and find the stranger. If his people were to have any chance at all, he had to find that stranger.
Across the river to their right, one of the lights of the searchers began to grow brighter. Another minute of observing the light revealed that they were paralleling their course while at the same time edging closer to the river. Ogger brought them to a halt.
"Should we return downriver?" he asked.
Father Thomas gazed to the approaching light. It had now come close enough that individual soldiers could be seen moving through the trees. There looked to be about six.
When he didn't receive an answer, Ogger said, "They may be looking to cross as well."
Closing his eyes, Father Thomas prayed for guidance.
One of the Qyaendri watching over Father Thomas took possession of the prayer and in the blink of an eye brought it to the High Temple. Moving through the throng of Qyaendri upon similar business he made his way to the Chamber of Decision. This was where each prayer was brought and considered by Qyaendri whose experiences allowed them to make decisions according to their goddess' wishes.
Immediately Father Thomas' prayer was taken and considered. The Qyaendri who had brought it waited only a second before the decision was given. Knowing what he had to do, the Qyaendri returned to Father Thomas. All of this was done in the span of three heartbeats.
As so many times before, he felt a calming come over him, a sensation he took to mean his prayer had been answered. The calmness seemed to flow toward him from downriver. Opening his eyes he turned to Ogger and said, "Downriver."
"Are you certain?" Ogger asked.
Nodding, the priest replied. "Absolutely. But we must hurry." Accompanying the sense to head downriver had been the feeling that time was running out. With Ogger once more in the lead, they hurried south.
Twice more feelings of calmness came over him, and each time he felt the need to alter course. Finally, they reached an area of the river which was wider than most. Ogger glanced to Father Thomas questioningly on whether to cross or not. When he received an affirmative response, began crossing to the other side.
Torchlight was seen sporadically off in the forest on either side of the river. They hurried across and then Father Thomas directed them to continue south.
"But that's the way the main force of the enemy lies," argued Ogger.
"Nevertheless," countered Father Thomas, "that is the way we must go."
Ogger saw the absolute certainty in his eyes and nodded. Grumbling to himself, he turned and began heading south, still clutching the foot and a half stout section of limb.
They traversed the forested bank of the river for a quarter mile before lights finally appeared out of the darkness ahead. Ogger brought them to a stop and turned back to Father Thomas. "I don't think it would be wise for us to go any further," he warned.
"Our Lady has guided our steps this far," he replied. Remaining motionless, he waited for the calmness to settle over him and show him the way to go. But this time, the calmness didn't come.
Offering a prayer of guidance, he again waited. And again, direction from above failed to materialize. Opening his eyes, he turned a worried expression toward the old man. "I..." he began then saw forms appear out of the darkness to the south.
"Run!" Ogger yelled and propelled the priest back the way they had come.
Father Thomas stumbled at first then managed to get his balance and fled. Behind them came shouts from their enemy indicating they had been found. Ogger let out a cry of pain as he hit the ground. Father Thomas glanced back for only a second to see the old man crashing to the ground. The shaft of an arrow was imbedded in his thigh.
"Go!" Ogger yelled as he regained his feet. Raising the stout limb, he turned to face the oncoming soldiers. "Damned Ullentites!" he shouted. "Raze my village will you!" Glancing over his shoulder he saw Father Thomas standing there. "Get out of here Father!" Then flashing him a grin, he turned back to face the soldiers.
"May our Lady protect you my son," Father Thomas prayed as he turned and raced away. He didn't make it very far before he heard Ogger shouting obscenities at the Ullentites. His tirade lasted only a short spell before being silenced.
Father Thomas paused only a fraction of a second before hearing soldiers approaching from where the direction Ogger had made his stand. Fear for himself now overrode every feeling he had. Raising the hem of his robe, he redoubled his speed. For a brief moment he entertained the fantasy that he might actually be able to pull away and escape, but motion in the forest ahead of him quickly dispelled that illusion.
"Stop right there!" a soldier commanded.
Two men held bows while another ten moved to encircle him.
Father Thomas came to a stop and frantically looked for a way out. As he offered a prayer beseeching Casdralla's aid, he was struck in the back of the head and rendered unconscious.