The way to the small village was extremely overgrown and difficult to navigate; the thick underbrush caught on each article of their clothing, vines and roots tangled around their ankles, and the closely-growing trees caused their route to twist in circles on more than one occasion. In the far distance, they could all faintly hear the alarm horns of Balinstiel being sounded. They quickened their paces.
Despite his concern over being noticed by anyone pursuing them, Engle risked letting Okohke fly low above the canopy to scout the best available course to the village. They needed to move fast, and, in Engle’s opinion, they couldn’t move fast enough. Once they were out of harm’s way and at a distance from the guards wishing to catch them once more, Engle would be able to go home. The thought of finishing his mission made Engle jittery; his hands shook lightly, and he had to struggle against the anxious feelings bubbling in his chest. He guessed that finally being free of the horrid jail cell was adding to his sense of impatience and restlessness as well.
The thick forest was eventually broken as they came to a clear-cut area filled with grass. Engle could see small gatherings of animals dotting the grassy area. A tiny cottage was set at the far corner of the field, farmland surrounding it on its three other sides. A crowded array of buildings was at the center of the vast patchwork landscape, and other cottages also flecked the farmland. Engle stepped out first, and the others followed. They ran silently through the pasture, past the grazing creatures and toward the closest lodge. To Engle, the animals they passed resembled oxen, if oxen had four sets of curled horns that crowned their broad, square heads at even intervals, making the great, slow animals look regal.
They slinked past the low windows of the farmhouse and discovered strings of washing hung to dry in the front yard. The damp articles steamed in the sunlight as Okohke darted out to grab and retrieve talon-fulls of cloth. They sifted through the clothing, finding new attire that would fit each of them. Being wanted criminals, Salleem, Okohke, Thalean, and Engle decided it best to conceal themselves so that it would be more difficult for others to recognize them.
“Quickly! Hide yourselves as best you can,” Heather told them. She stood at the corner of the farmhouse, keeping watch.
“How do you expect to hide him?” Lance said, pointing directly at Engle. “If he’s wearing armor like that, he’s pretty hard to miss, don’t you think?”
“I would prefer to keep the armor on,” Engle said without looking up from the pile of clothing. The crow-man alighted on the ground before him, a brown and tattered thing clutched in his claws. Engle took the fabric from Okohke, the crow fluttering away, and he held it up; he found the article to be a thick, though rather worn cloak large enough to hide both him and the metal plating he wore. Engle drew the rough cloth around his armored shoulders, fastening the clasp at his neck and throwing the hood over his helmet while Hiss looked at him from underneath the metal. He was relieved to have the cloak, but if things went as planned, he would not need it for much longer.
Lance looked him up and down with scrutiny, his brows low, but he nodded. “You look like a misshapen giant, but it will have to do.”
Shortly after, they all wore new garments and were ready to once again depart. At a stern look from Heather, Lance grudgingly pulled a handful of gold coins from a concealed pouch at his waist and tossed them onto the front doorstep. They located a narrow dirt road that wound through the farmland in the direction of the little settlement.
When they reached the small town, they were less than enthused to discover it as being run-down, unkempt, and overly unwelcoming. They walked through its tiny streets while looking for the inn that Salleem had spoken about. Its windows cracked and dirtied, no light filtering from inside, they found the building on the edge of the town. They looked through the windows, their noses pressed against the cold glass making small clouds of breath, but there was no movement from the inside. The eight of them huddled under the rafters, quietly discussing where to go and hiding their faces from the townsfolk. They decided to find an abandoned building, somewhere to sit, rest, and elude any search parties passing through town.
They came across such a building not far from the inn. The door hung loosely from its hinges and swung languidly from side to side. They shuffled inside, moldering planks squeaking beneath their feet. The structure was dilapidated and empty aside from discarded trash and filth that had been piled in the corners. A staircase led up to a second floor, but it was ragged, filled with holes, and splintered. A small fireplace was set into one of the walls, and the two elves set about ripping out pieces of the stairs to use as kindling. They both spoke in low voices as they worked. Heather sat against the wall opposite the fireplace and watched the two work while she idly stroked Mouse’s fur.
Salleem took the crow-man aside. “Okohke, would you go outside to scout the town? Make sure the guards aren’t following us.”
Okohke bobbed his head up and down, a smile on his face. He dashed out door, halfway through his transformation, and was gone. Salleem watched his friend go, and then leaned against the wall and slid to the floor next to Heather. His chin drooped to his chest.
Engle guessed that the crow was happy to stretch his wings against the cool air. This would be easier than he had previously thought. With the crow gone, he doubted anyone would be watching the thief’s back.
If anything, now was the time. If he moved now, none of the others would ever see him until it was done. They would not be able to stop him. Engle stood there, in the middle of the room, and slowly slid his fingers over the smooth, metal handle of his pistol.