“What should we do?” asked Lady.
The children turned to look at each other in the gathering darkness. The shouts of the wildmen still echoed from the center of the hollow, and with each cry came the fear that the next one would signal the deaths of their two friends.
“I don’t know,” said Joe. He glanced up at Kobi’s stallion, but the great beast simply stared placidly back at him.
“We have to save them!” Sim urged. “We can’t just leave them there.”
“But how?” said Joe. “We’re just children. They’re two of the best knights in the country, and they couldn’t win this fight.”
“So we probably shouldn’t try to fight the wildmen,” Lady summed up.
“Right,” Joe drew the long dagger that Mack had given him the night before. “We need a different sort of plan. A quiet approach, a distraction, something like that. I think I’ve got an idea. Come on, follow me. But remember, we have to be absolutely quiet.”
Joe stood and took the stallion’s reins, then led it around the far side of the boulder. Sim and Lady followed silently behind. The slope there was strewn with rocks, some of them just knee-high and others as big as houses. It made for very slow walking, but the rocks provided enough cover that, even with the horse, they were out of sight of the fire for most of the way down into the center of the hollow. And even in those moments where they were exposed, the darkness of the falling night and the haze from the fire did a fair job of cloaking their approach. Even the horse seemed to understand the necessity for silence, and its hoofs struck against the stones with only the gentlest of tappings.
Inch by agonizing inch, they drew closer to the center of the hollow. The gruff voices of the wildmen grew ever louder, and eventually they came so close that they could even hear the logs crackling in the fire. They found another large boulder just beyond the furthest circle of bright firelight, where the rocky slopes gave way to the well-tramped central area, and there they hunkered down again.
“Now,” Joe whispered, “you two need to stay here. I’m going to try to sneak up behind Mack and Kobi and cut their bonds without the wildmen noticing me.”
“That’s your plan?” Sim hissed back. “Not to have the wildmen notice you? Great plan.”
“I don’t think it’s very good either,” Lady said softly. “There are wildmen all over out there. You need a distraction.”
Joe looked around him helplessly. What could distract a whole band of wildmen hunters? He didn’t know; he had never been around them before. Then he looked at the horse again. A slow smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
“Well,” he breathed, “you may not understand this, big fellow, but it’s to save your master. Just run fast.”
He unfastened the reins from the horse’s mouth and then walked around to the great mount’s hindquarters.
“Here we go,” he whispered, and then he dealt the horse’s rump as fierce a slap as he could.
The horse gave a loud whinny and then tore out of its hiding place behind the boulder, straight into the firelight at the center of the hollow. Joe had intended to startle the poor beast and get it to run, but as he watched it, he got the feeling that the horse had understood his plan thoroughly. Not only did it seem startled, it appeared to be playing the part of a startled horse to perfection, tearing around the fire, snorting, and flailing its hoofs with exquisite passion. Once it had attracted the attention of the whole band of wildmen, who ran toward it in a chorus of shouts and snarls, it took off into the wilderness to the south.
“Come on!” Joe hissed as soon as the way was clear.
There wasn’t a single wildman in sight as they crept out of the shadow of the boulder. All that were left were Mack and Kobi, silently struggling against their bonds, and the only sounds were the chorus of the wildmen’s hunt fading rapidly into the distance. Joe raced up behind Mack and swiftly began sawing at the thick leather strips that held his hands together. Sim worked his fingers furiously on one of Kobi’s knots, while Lady stepped up to each knight’s face and removed their gags.
“Good work, friends!” Mack said hoarsely as soon as he could speak. “Once again, you prove to be the bravest of us all!”
“Sorry about your horse, Sir Kobi,” said Lady. “I hope they don’t catch him.”
“Oh, they won’t,” the younger knight laughed. “He’s smarter than all of them, and me, put together! That was a great idea to let him carry them all off.”
Joe’s dagger had done its work after just a couple minutes of feverish work, and the last bonds fell away from the knights. They stood up, rubbed their aching wrists and ankles, and then smiled down at the children.
“Well, we stand in your debt,” said Kobi. “But let’s not stay here to talk about it. We need to get as far down the road as we can tonight and put this place well behind us.”
So they dashed off into the night, all five of them, running single file down the road. Kobi took the lead, and then the children followed him in order of their age, with Mack taking up the rear. The knights’ armor clinked and jangled as they ran, but in the happy desperation of that moment, it didn’t slow them down at all. They ran and ran, up one ridge and down another, as far as their feet would take them down the moonlit road into the west. Finally they all collapsed together, breathing heavily, along the banks of a little pond. They looked back the way they had come, and nothing could be seen of the place of their capture, not even the faintest of glows from the wildmen’s fire.
“We should be all right here,” said Mack between gasps for air. “We’re coming to the western lowlands now, and the hills of Bor-Takan are behind us. I don’t think the wildmen will bother to follow.”
“And if they do, we’ll be ready for them this time,” said Kobi. “One or the other of us will be on watch all night long.”
“With swords out,” Mack added.
“Aye, swords out,” grinned Kobi.
They all fell silent for a long while, and then Lady asked a question.
“Did they say anything about the prince before they attacked you?”
Kobi grimaced and Mack shook his head. “No, said the latter. “One of them seemed to understand the common tongue. I think I may have seen him nod when we asked about seeing other travelers. But that was it. After that, they just jumped on us.”
“But I don’t think they captured the prince, anyway,” said Kobi. “If they had, we would have seen some evidence of that.”
“Well, that’s good,” said Sim. “So he must have gotten by. And with all our running tonight, maybe he’s just around the next bend!”
“Aye, son, perhaps he is,” said Mack with a groan. “We’ll check the next bend in the morning. For now, we sleep. Sir Kobi, my old bones are just about jostled apart. Would you take the first watch?”
“At your service, sir,” said the younger knight. “And good rest to all. Tomorrow we may see our king!”