Taliesin could tell that Sam was not human, but wasn’t sure what he was. Sam had an energy, an aura, about him that Taliesin could almost see and could certainly feel. The day wore on as the tiny being taught them the basics of surviving in the wildlands of Adaran. Tal finally relaxed around him enough to ask the question gnawing at his mind since Sam made his appearance shortly after dawn.
“Sam,” Taliesin began, “I don’t want to seem offensive or stunningly ignorant, but …” He hesitated a moment before blurting, “what exactly are you?”
“What ya mean ‘what am I?’ I’m Dashae, that’s what I am.”
Tal chewed on Sam’s answer for a moment. The word Taliesin heard didn’t translate in his mind, and he assumed the name was in the language of whatever race Sam came from. The little man reminded him of the halflings described in the source-books he and his cousins used to play their D&D games.
Sam spent the rest of the day teaching the cousins to make a shelter that couldn’t be seen and tried to teach them the basics of walking silently through the forest. He found saplings that could be used as quarterstaves and handed them out to the group. As they sparred, he could see that they knew how to use the weapons in a rudimentary way. They would need training and experience to survive. Not that he knew how to train, but he did know his way around a quarterstaff. He’d been using one since he was a wee bairn.
Late in the afternoon, Sam went to check on his snares. He asked Dreyah to go with him since she was the best at keeping herself hidden and quiet. Sam wanted to show someone in the group how to lay snares if he wasn’t around. And the young Dashae wasn’t sure now about moving on to Aernon. The only reason Sam had chosen the city was because of the rumors he’d heard back in Saram.
Crouching in the darkness, Sam waited for the patrol to pass. He had decided that this was the night. The night he was going to escape his servitude to the Shadow Orphans. The night he would leave the trade city of Saram and make his way toward Aernon.
For weeks he’d heard rumors about the plan to rebuild Aernon, and he wanted to be a part of that plan. It had to be better than here. The problem was, the city was five hundred or more leagues from Saram, across some of the most hostile and wildlands Adaran had to offer. And he was a single halfling, the size of an average seven-year-old human. He might be able to use that to his advantage, he knew. He would just have to be careful who he allied himself with.
The watch passed, and Sam scurried from his hiding place. Shadowing the patrol for several blocks, he veered down another alleyway. Climbing a drain spout, Sam found himself on a mostly flat tiled roof. Careful not to loosen any tiles, he scampered across the rooftop, running, jumping, and adjusting his balance as the surface he traveled across shifted in height and texture. It was a route he had journeyed a hundred times before.
Halting to catch his breath in the shadow of a seedy tavern’s chimney, Sam listened to softly spoken words wafting up the smokestack. Cautious and secretive, the conversation gave him pause, as the acoustics worked in his favor.
“… but Cooser di’na say that … exactly. He said jus’ tha’ they be called ‘Crushers’ in mem’ ry o’ Crusher Gondarala who was ruler of Aernon’s golden age. They be fightin’ for the little people from the shadows… fightin’ against th’ pretend leader, Lord Lothaire.”
“Balls of a Bullock!” another voice exclaimed in a harsh whisper, “I ‘eard him me-self! ‘E be lookin’ fer recruits from the Orphans, ta fill this Crushers gangs ranks. Me take is, they be takin’ a royal whippin’ from Lothaire’s men, now needs fresh blood to stiffen the spine of the rank and file. They needs more fresh blood ta spill, fightin’ a top dog army o’ real soldiers. Gots’ta fill with back alley footpads, gamers’ den leg breakers, an’ cloaked assassins with garrote and dagger! Yer better off buyin’ that bridge old Tolbert tries to sell when he’s in his cups and outta coin.”
“So… is Boss Boy sendin’ a Shadow Orphan crew all that way?” The third voice was youthful, female, and sounded frightened at the prospect.
“The Boss an’ Rat ‘er talkin’ in the den now,” responded the first voice. “I would’ na care ta make a guess, one way or…, anyway, if they send a crew, it will be a change from this old hole of a sewer. That can’t be a bad thing. Can it?”
Sam thought about the events of the past day and decided that the Shadow Orphans could have Aernon. This group of young humans had a much more exciting adventure ahead of them. ‘Sides, showing these kids how to survive would serve Minerva, and Sam was good with that. Minerva had kept him alive all these years. He was sure of it, and he wasn’t going to repay her generosity and assistance by leaving these youngsters to the mercy of Adaran. That wasn’t who he was.
Dreyah followed Sam through the brush as silently as she was able. Once he had shown them where to look to place their feet, she began to see what she had missed. Before long, she was traveling almost as silently as Sam, though not as fast.
The pair found one of the snares, retrieved the darnni, and moved on to the next. When they reached Sam’s final trap, nearest the village, they heard a ruckus.
“’ Oy!” shouted a deep voice. “Over ‘ere! Looks like we gots us a poacher!”
Sam turned to Dreyah and motioned her back onto the deer track they had been following, a finger to his lips for silence.
Dreyah turned and began creeping back toward their camp. As the pair moved slowly away, she heard what could have been several bodies moving through the forest around them.
“Aye,” another voice, more cultured, sounded off to their right. Dreyah froze. “On my way.”
Closing her eyes, using only her sense of hearing, she followed the sounds of something moving through the brush. The sounds ceased.
“Ah, indeed,” said the cultured voice. “Bancock, we’ll need to flush the perpetrator. Leave the darnni. If it’s still here, that means they haven’t retrieved it as yet. Leave a guard to apprehend the criminal.”
Sam and Dreyah arrived back at the camp as the sun sank into the western sky.
“We gots a problem,” said Sam without preamble as they entered the tiny clearing.
“What’s up?” asked Taliesin.
“We seen a patrol at me last snare, the one closest to the town where I, er … acquired yer wardrobe,” the halfling said, color dotting his cheeks. “They be leavin’ a guard to catch whoever set it. I reckon if it ain’t retrieved this night, they’ll be sendin’ out a patrol in th’ mornin’ to find who did.”
He looked at each of the cousins in turn.
“Our next lesson in woods craft, is how ta cover yer tracks. I highly suggest ya settle in early tonight. We’s gonna have ta be up long ‘afore Solanya graces th’ horizon.”
“We destroyed the other snares and did our best to make the areas look undisturbed, but a good tracker could probably figure out what happened,” said Dreyah.
Sam showed them how to wrap the dressed and seasoned darnni in heavy leaves to cook in the coals. He said that this method helped keep the smell of cooking to a minimum, but they would have to sup fast and pray for a wind to dissipate the aroma.
When the meat was done, they scattered the fire and found enough water and dirt to cool the coals. Chase decided that he would add more moisture to the coals by emptying his bladder on one of the logs.
“I would n’a do that if’n I’s you,” Sam remarked.
“If’n they bring in a Tracker, they’ll be able to get yer scent, an’ ye’ll never be free of ’em,” said the little man. “As it is, if’n they want ta make a deal out o’ it, I’m sure the local lordling will help. And if’n they find all o’ ya in them clothes, they’ll hang ya’s fer theft.”
“What if they find this camp?” asked Katra as she poured more water where Chase had relieved himself.
Sam looked at her for a moment.
“Let’s hope they don’t.”