The treetops proved a good way to travel. Ontlig search parties crisscrossed the forest floor beneath him, always a few hundred yards behind as he pushed to the northwest. When they fell too far back, he threw a stick toward them, to make some noise and get them back on the hunt. After an hour or two, he let them off the hook and left them behind. It should have been obvious to them where he was headed, and he could use some sleep, even if it was to be fitfully wedged between the first two convenient boughs he could find.
One trio of ontr, however, proved more persistent than the rest. Although they seemed not to know where he was exactly, they nevertheless refused to turn back to their camp, and every once in a while, he caught sight of them, striking out at random to try to pick up his trail. He could ill afford to have them stumble across him, and him alone—the whole point of this exercise was to convince the whole warband to follow him. He sighed, touched his side tenderly, and planned the fight. One had a crossbow. He could use that to even the odds somewhat—either take the weapon and kill the beast, or bait it into shooting one of its companions. Either way. Even wounded, he could fight two at once.
The ontligr searchers came nearer. Falthejn dropped to a lower branch, knees bending just so to take the shock of landing. He made no sound but the rustling of the pine needles. The first two ontr passed by. Falthejn steeled himself, tensed, and dropped at the third.
As he fell, it evaporated. He flailed for the merest moment before he hit the forest floor. Scrambling to his feet, he readied himself for the others. They, too, had vanished.
He frowned. He felt no evidence that they had left by magic, but he had very little idea of the extent of his enemy’s talents. Cautiously, he sheathed his sword and pushed ahead.
“Falthejn!” The shout split the night air—Sif’s voice.
“No,” Falthejn said aloud, spinning on his heel. This was all wrong. They were supposed to go on ahead.
He turned again, following the noise, and sprinted toward it. Perhaps they could still be saved.
His foot caught a tree root, and he flew forward. He landed hard on his wounded side, slid off a rock outcrop, and tumbled down into a gully. He came to rest, face down, and did not move.