Dreams of Days to Come
Part Four – Desperate Ventures
With all the cunning grace possessed by a stalking panther, Peregrine led her small band of hand picked men through the shrouding confines of the jungles, following paths little used and harder to pick out. They made barely a sound as they walked, placing each foot with care so as not to disturb fallen twigs and branches and give away their presence. Arrows were nocked to bowstrings as narrowed eyes swept the dense foliage all around, seeking out any sign of the wild men in whose home they were trespassing.
Peregrine had chosen well, and as a result they were a widely mixed group. Ebon skinned Agakwa trackers from the powerful kingdoms of the south, men much sought after by the lords of the north, mingled with hardened mercenaries from a wide spread of nations, and with men of the Metsheput borders who had long faced off against the depredations of the wild men in their ambushes and raids. They carried short swords or hand axes at their sides and bows to hand though few wore armour beyond leather jerkins.
At any moment they half expected to see the wild men come swarming out of the trees, with blood and fury, stone spears and axes. With each step they took that no sign of the foe materialised, tensions tightened until nerves were near frayed, the slightest sound out of the normal threatening to set them off. Volunteers all, they still knew that they had embarked on what was most like a fool’s errand and that none were liable to make it out of the jungles alive, even if they succeeded in their plans.
Though Blade, Peregrine’s tall and somnolent companion, alone among Peregrine’s hand picked band of desperate men had been born in the cities, he had long learnt the value of stealth, of the silent step, and slid forward alongside them with nary a whisper. His was the stealth of the city alleys though, of the rooftops, the silent blades in the dark and the whisper of crossbow bolts seeking out unsuspecting targets. He could not match the step of those born to the wilds.
Before dawn had even broached the ramparts of the night, they had set out from where the army of the Queen of Metsheput had been encamped, two score in number, making their way into the somnolent gloom of the clinging jungles. They travelled on through the morning as the jungle woke up around them, with strange calls and noises coming from all around and the foliage rustling as beasts moved about, heard but never seen. Their course led them to one of the villages of the wild men, one that had been reported to exist, although the permanence of such places could never be relied upon. They could sprout up and be gone before any from the lands out beyond the jungles noticed, all trace lost before to long as the overgrowth sprung rapidly up.
The barely perceptible path that they followed led, in time, to one of the many streams that flowed through the jungle, its dark waters running fast, while skeins of morning mist danced across its surface. Trees clustered in close around it, their branches shading the water so that only here and there did beams of morning sunlight pierce through to illuminate the surface. Gnarled roots burst from the soils along the length of the banks of the stream, twisted masses that plunged into the waters.
They halted at the edge of the stream, remaining hidden in the dense foliage, for it would be folly to wade out into the water. To do so would make them visible to any who may have lurked on the far bank. With great intent they studied the other side, barely moving as they looked for any signs that may have indicated that a foe awaited them there.
At a brief nod from Peregrine, Blade let a soft tune whistle forth from his lips, masked so that to any listening it would appear as simply one of the many birds that sung lustily in the jungle canopy above. Sweat beaded across his brow, and not just from the stifling heat of the jungle that lay trapped beneath the trees, but from the effort he put into the tune as well.
The mists that lingered as wispy forms upon the water began to flow outwards, building in intensity at the call of Blade’s tune until such time as they rolled across the stream, and beyond, into the jungle itself, a most unnatural event to behold. Thick as a sea fog it became so that nothing could be seen across the stream, or of the stream itself, though all sounds within it seemed magnified.
When she had judged that the mists were intense enough, Peregrine slipped into the waters with nary a ripple or sound and began fording her way across. One by one, the rest of the band followed, until only Blade remained behind. As he entered the water, he let the tune drop. The mist would not last long, dissipating as the sun burnt it away, but it had enabled them to cross without incident, even if it had left Blade drained.
Regrouping on the other side of the stream, they pushed forward once more, deeper into the dense jungle that seemed to swallow both light and life. Naught but the clinging foliage could be seen, and through this they forced their way, headed towards the village of the wild men.
Abruptly Peregrine held up a hand, signalling the band to halt. She stood there, unmoving, listening intently. Beside her, a burly black Kurushu mercenary looked around.
“What is it?” he whispered in barely perceived tones.
“Listen. What do you hear?”
Peregrine nodded. “Exactly. The jungle. Just the jungle. No drums. This place should be a live with them, for that is how they speak, is it not?”
“It is,” the Kurushu confirmed.
When they set off again, it came with a greater sense of urgency, slipping through the jungle like beasts born to it. Sweat coursed down their bodies as the sweltering intensity of the heat continued to rise as they day grew longer. When at last they reached their destination, the sun had reached its zenith. The encampment, a series of crude huts, was surrounded by a wall of sharpened stakes. Fetishes of feathers and bone decorated the barricade, alongside the heads of victims of the wild men. Some were shrivelled and decayed, while others were fresh, the blood upon them barely dry. No sound came from within the encampment, nor could they spot any signs of movement. Signalling for the others to remain behind, Peregrine crept forward across the clearing that surrounded the village with all the cunning of a stalking jaguar, and just as silent.
She reached the barricade and swiftly pulled herself up, peering over it and into the village. Her head swept back and forwards a couple of times as she checked it over before she dropped back down and made her way to where the others waited. Her return had less of the customary wary caution she had exhibited earlier.
“There is not a one of them there,” she told them. “None remain but for their victims.”
“Where then have they gone?” Blade mused.
“That we must discover. We shall track the, if we can.”
“That shall be no easy task.”
Peregrine laughed with wry amusement. “Nothing worthwhile ever is.”
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