Wolf swiftly reached the base of the tree, then edged quietly along the ground in order to prevent startling deer or other forest animals, and potentially alerting the pilgrims to her presence. Reaching a cluster of small trees, she crouched down and waited for Viper to join her. The trees were at the summit of an incline in the road, the point chosen by the brigands for their ambush; the pilgrims, should they decide to resist, would literally be fighting an uphill battle.
A moment later, she heard Viper creeping up behind her, and glared back at him, her unspoken question evident in her face – Is everyone ready? He tapped her twice on the shoulder to confirm. Before climbing down from their perch, Viper had risen above the tree line to flash the attack signal to the scouts and another brigand, armed with a bow and positioned closer to the ambush point. Having given the signal, the brigands needed to act without communication until engaging their victims; they could still signal each other through trunk tapping, but that practice was not entirely reliable and also fairly easy to detect.
Wolf and Viper waited silently for several minutes, then finally heard the sound of approaching footfalls. For the first time, Wolf saw the pilgrims Viper had identified through his telescope. In the front was a large man, a nobleman from the continent judging from his clothing and bearing; behind him was a frail woman, with an intelligent yet soft face, wearing priestly robes; walking beside her was a boy, dressed in peasant clothing and looking no older that fifteen, who was leading a mule laden with sacks; bringing up the rear was another man, nearly as powerful looking as the nobleman and dressed as a colonial merchant, but whose dark skin clearly identified him as an Islander.
As the pilgrims approached, Wolf estimated how much wealth they’d be carrying. They would certainly be carrying an offering of a two, maybe three hundred for the temple priests, and somewhere between ten and twenty more for their personal use; their clothing and equipment might garner an additional ten on the black market. They’d let them keep the mule, an animal too easily recognizable. If they were lucky, they could score two-fifty from this raid, not anything close to the raids in the days before the Safety Committee escorts, but still more than they could hope to obtain in a week’s worth of other activities.
The pilgrims finally reached the ambush point, and Wolf sprang out from behind the cluster of trees, and raced out into the road, several yards in front of the nobleman. Drawing a dagger with her right hand and raising it high above her head, she waved her left hand at the pilgrims – “Welcome, travelers, to the city of Philos!”
The nobleman stopped a moment, and examined the figure who had just stepped in their path. He glanced back at his companions; the priestly woman nodded. Then the nobleman faced forward again, and resumed walking.
Snapping her head up and to the left, Wolf whistled sharply. A second later, an arrow hummed down from the forest, striking and sticking in the road no more than a foot in front of the nobleman, who stopped and looked down with a smile on his face, as if he had just come across an interesting plant.
“Three-feather fletching – ” the nobleman grabbed the arrow, pulled it from the road and examined its end closer – “and yes, we have nocking and cocking. “ He waved the arrow and looked up in the direction from where it had been launched. “Nice work.”
Wolf whistled twice, the signal to attack, but the nobleman turned to her slowly, shaking his head. “Oh, that’s not going to work any longer.” Wolf looked up, and from the archer’s position saw a struggle among the leaves; a moment later her archer’s broken bow fell to the ground, followed by his quiver of arrows, and then, with a panicked scream, the archer himself.
Drawing the other dagger from her belt, Wolf crouched down into attack position. Behind the Islander, she saw Viper leap into the road, sword drawn. The brigands were thieves, not warriors; skirmishing was not their strength, but Wolf realized they had no choice. Whoever had taken out their archer knew how to get around in these woods, so running was not an option; they’d have to fight their way out of this situation.