"We're being followed."
"You just now noticed?"
"I just now remarked on it." Shanna smiled. "They're not as subtle as they think they are."
Sam chuckled and put a hand on her sword. "Humans never are. Oh, they think they're subtle, but when it comes down to it they broadcast their bad intentions so transparently that it becomes a kind of disguise: nobody believes that they would actually be that cruel or that selfish, especially after all but announcing it like that." She paused, then added: "Well, the bad ones do. A lot of them are just trying to get along, like the rest of us."
"This groups seems fairly intent on doing us harm, or at least recapturing us."
"Or both! Could be both."
Shanna looked faintly disgruntled, then admitted: "It's probably both." She looked at Sam: heavily armed but not particularly armored; skilled enough to pick off human patrols, but probably not a match for the four human trackers that were somewhere behind them. This band of humans would have sent their best after any prisoner who dared to escape from the middle of their camp, and by now they had to know that Shanna wasn't alone. "So what do you want to do about it?"
"My friends were supposed to meet me about half a mile further on," Sam answered confidently. "If we can get to them—"
A burly human stepped out from behind a tree in front of them and raised the hood of his lantern to bathe them in its light. "Too late for that, knife-ears."
Shanna had her rapier out before the human finished speaking, and Sam yanked her greatsword from its sheath a heartbeat later.
"Better if you come quietly, little girls." The human's expression was all condescension and feigned sadness. "Be a shame if anything happened to you on the way back to camp." He gestured, and three more figures emerged from the brush behind them, all three pointing crossbows in their direction.
"I could scream for help," Shanna muttered, putting her back to Sam's and trying to watch all of the crossbowmen at once. If they fought, they were going to get skewered.
"No point," answered Sam, completely unfazed. "We don't really have any choice—" at that moment she shifted her sword to one hand, pulled a dagger from her belt, and threw it at the man with the lantern. It was a rare, perfect throw and it caught him in the left eye; he fell before he had time to look surprised.
At that moment, a small figure stepped out of the shadow of a tree not half a pace away from one of the crossbowmen, and put a shortsword into his kidney; the man gasped and dropped his weapon, reach back to try to wrench the blade out of his back. The figure stepped back and vanished again. A strangled cry yanked Shanna's attention to her right, where she saw a massive cat of some sort with long, knife-like fangs sunk into the shoulder of another crossbowman as it dragged him off into the bushes. The last of their pursuers tried to shoot the beast, but in his panic the shot went wide.
Sam swung around so that she was shoulder to shoulder with Shanna, and the two of them started forward. It was the work of a moment for Shanna to finish off the wounded one, and by then Sam had finished off the last. His last words had been, "You can't—"
"...Or we could lure them into a trap using ourselves as bait," finished Sam. She looked around at the fallen. "It might help if we could take a prisoner to the local lords."
A young man stepped out of the bushes on the side of the trail, wiping a smear of blood from his mouth. "I am not," he announced, "healing any of those. They tasted perfectly horrible." He was one of the common elves -- a grey elf, Shanna thought. Also, apparently, a druid.
But it was the final figure that caught her eyes as he finally stepped into the light. He was small, and at first glance she thought he was a child — though he'd been awfully skillful in sinking his blade into the crossbowman for his age...
He wasn't a child. He was small and slim, maybe half her height, but he wasn't a child. "Shanna," said Sam, putting a hand on her shoulder and squeezing just a little tighter than strictly necessary: "This is Leander the Elf."
Shanna blinked twice in rapid succession, because the man in front of her was clearly a halfling; but he'd just helped saved their lives, and this didn't seem the time for questions. "I am very pleased to meet you," she said, and Sam turned her away with a subtle tug on her shoulder. "And this is Evrimon Broadleaf."
"You as well," Shanna said automatically, matching her responses to Sam's unspoken cues. "I'm very grateful to you both."
"It was a pleasure," answered Leander the Elf. "If we'd known you were being hunted by humans, we'd have come sooner."
Evrimon managed an elaborate, almost courtly shrug. "We are indeed happy to help; any friend of Shanna's is our friend as well." He glanced at Leander. "I'm not sure I'd call it a pleasure, though." He worked his mouth, as though trying to get the taste out of it.
"You could have just summoned something," Leander pointed out. "You didn't have to go all BWAR-I'm-a-giant-saber-toothed-tiger on that guy."
"I am not," answered Evrimon stiffly, "leaving the fate of our friends to a bunch of summoned beasts," but a small smile played around his lips and for a moment it was much like being back with Devonin and Werendril and Ruin in one of their bouts of good-natured bickering.
She'd intended to go her own way once they were safe, but now Shanna began to reconsider...