Though he was worrying about the situation so much that he had run through all their options several times in his head even as Vaelrindel spoke, Uraseil nodded and responded quickly.
"We need to keep the resting time to a minimum. Given how far from dwarven camps we are, I give them...six hours to get close enough to the cave that we probably won't escape." Uraseil said, then paused as he did some mental calculations, "We have four hours to rest. Well, you do. We can't afford to oversleep, so I shall keep watch and wake you in four hours. There is a soft spot of dirt just over there, try to get to sleep as soon as you can."
Uraseil moved around the part of the cave they were in as he talked, a vaguely circular area around 8 meters in diameter, rising to a sort of dome overhead. There were two visible exits, one towards where they had come from and one leading to the rear entrance of the cave system, only 30 seconds from where they were. Once he had walked around the room and was satisfied that those were the only two exits large enough to get through, Uraseil smiled at Vaelrindel.
"I have to say, it is good to have someone with me. I thought I would have to make the entire journey by myself a few weeks with no one to talk to can be tough. I'll keep watch from outside, a view of the stars will give me a better sense of time."
Guessing the general had already gotten some sleep that night before he arrived, Vaelrindel nodded and did not argue. He ended up choosing a place where he would not be seen directly from the entrance that Uraseil was not guarding and spread the extra cloak that he had gotten from a guard to at least somewhat cover his own ill-camouflaged riding coat over it.
He had not had time to think of his situation much with the pace they had travelled and most of it had not really sunken in yet. While the possibility and likelihood of losing the war had been real for a long time, the direct loss of his house and family was only slowly creeping up on him. The more resent loss of his small team of bodyguards was easier for his mind to comprehend. They had been the last had left after the news of Merithiarnath’s fall and they were gone too now. He left them behind and he’d never see them again. The rest of his house was an emotional void and despite all the warning he could not really grasp that it had happened, as if his mind was trying to protect him from the chock. He knew the realization would catch up with him sooner or later, and he knew that was going to be horrible.
In the end, Vael was too worn out for the thoughts to keep him awake more than a few minutes and he was asleep on the cave floor before he had time to delve into any great misery.
Uraseil walked slowly to the outside, feeling his way through the narrow corridor that separated them from the rear exit to the caves. He stepped outside, looking around as he did so. There was a clearing of grass around the opening for a few metres, before the forest took over. Above the entrance was a small cliff face, with visible way of easily getting to the top. Uraseil frowned as he tried to pick out his best vantage point to keep watch from. Eventually he found a small outcropping which hid him almost entirely from the sight of anyone passing by, but still gave him a good view of his surroundings. Uraseil glanced up at the stars and took note of where a few of them were in relation to the top of the cliff above him. Settling in for his first watch duty in years, Uraseil started thinking about the past month, running through all the battles he had fought in, all the strategic decisions he had made, and thinking of ways he could have made better choices, saved more lives. He had long ago realized that he could not have turned the tide of the battle single handed, even if he had known exactly what the Dwarves were planning; the addition of the Humans to their forces made the war an almost certain defeat.
This had become his habit whenever he had some time to just sit and think, which wasn't particularly often. Uraseil couldn't stop himself, his mind seemed to click back whenever he wasn't using it for anything else. Uraseil sighed, glanced around, then went back to his thoughts.
--- 2 hours later ---
There was a sound. Uraseil broke out of his train of thoughts and stopped breathing, straining his ears to pick up the sound he had just heard. A stick breaking perhaps? He drew his sword silently, but didn't leave his hiding spot. If someone was getting close, Uraseil didn't want to scare them off, he needed to capture or kill them. A scout escaping would just send more people to the area.
Minutes passed, with Uraseil staying completely silent and listening. No noise came from the forest aside from the rustling of leaves in the wind.
Uraseil still didn't move, his mind now completely blank, but paying full attention to every sound he heard.
After almost half an hour of this, Uraseil slowly relaxed. Another half hour later, he finally sheathed his sword, letting his mind wander back to past battles, accepting that he must have imagined it.
--- An hour later ---
Uraseil glanced up at the stars, noticing that four hours had passed. He slowly stood up, scanning the trees in front of him one last time for any sign of activity. All was quiet. The wind had dropped to almost nothing, not even making the trees rustle. A cold mist was starting to spread around the forest, something that Uraseil was grateful for. Mist had a way of dampening sound that would make it easy to avoid anyone searching for them, and they would be able to travel along a ridge for most of the day if the mist held, as they would not have to worry much about being exposed.
As he walked back into the cave, Uraseil was in a better mood than he had been the day before. He now had a reason other than himself to continue and escape the clutches of the Dwarves, something that would keep him going and reinforce his efforts. He had joined the military out of a sense of duty, and duty was the force that inspired him most; duty to his race and country.
"Vaelrindel? Wake up, we need to get moving before sunrise." said Uraseil in a loud voice as he entered the cave.
At first only hearing there was loud noise, Vaelrindel woke with a jolt and reached for his sword, as had been his reaction to sudden sounds for the last few days. Recognizing the voice as Uraseils he stopped in the motion and instead rose slowly, wrapping the cloak he had been sleeping on around his shoulders. It had not lightened enough outside for it to make a difference in the cave, it was just as dark as it had been four hours ago and it gave no impression any time passed at all. He was stiff from sleeping directly on the ground and he did not feel especially energized, but was alright and he would fall over if caught by the wind anymore.
“I assume you said we should get moving.” He said, shaking his head to chase the sleep away and walked up to the general, managing a smile. There was nothing to pack or fix, he could just get up and be ready to leave, which in a way felt rather strange. He stayed a moment just before leaving the cave and looked back into its darkness.
“I was given directions to this place. I know if anyone in my team survived, they would be here by now. I still wish I could leave a message, just in case. Not that there is anything I could leave that would tell them I’m alive and where I’m going that would not also tell the dwarves and humans I’m alive and where I’m going.” He sighed and continued out into the hazy forest. He had been unbelievably lucky to have run into Uraseil, not sure what he would have done in this situation alone.
"I'm sorry, but we can't leave any sign we have been here at all. If the dwarves realize that we were in this cave, they will easily be able to figure out which direction we are heading in, especially if they catch our trail. As long as they don't know which direction we fled in, they have to spread out their resources." replied Uraseil, though he was wishing that they could stay a little longer. If a professional bodyguard could join their group, they would stand much more of a chance. Unfortunately they had used all the time they had, and Uraseil motioned for Vaelrindel to follow him as he began to pick his way out of the cave.
Once they were outside, Uraseil took another look around, scanning to forest for any sign of movement. The mist and trees blocked most of his vision, the sounds coming from the forest all seemed damped, and Uraseil could not tell which direction the sounds were coming from. A running stream only a short distance away, though just out of sight was the main sound, and if Uraseil didn't already know where it was, he would not have been able to guess. The sun had not yet risen, but morning was beginning to lighten up. Given the mist, however, it would probably not be very light for hours. He gestured to his right.
"There is a stream a little out of sight in that direction, and beyond that lies the path we would have taken if we had left without rest. It leads through a narrow pass between this valley and the next, then winds up the nearby hills and around the edge of the forest. After around eight hours walking it breaks out of the forest and crosses the barren rocky valleys that separate the forest from the grasslands. The grasslands go on for around a days walk, and somewhere on them is the border between our kingdom and the Dwarves."
Uraseil now motioned towards the left.
"That way winds back around to the other side of the cave. It takes much longer, almost an hour, to travel that path, as it winds around the side of this cliff here. The Dwarves will probably take that route when chasing us. They don't know the caves here, and won't realize that it links through. Directly in front of us lies the heart of the forest. The first couple of hours will be easy going, but once we get to the ancient part of the forest, it will get hard to push through the undergrowth. At that point we will climb a hill and travel along a ridge line. In around twelve hours we get to the edge of the forest. We will find a good place to camp, and stay there the night before we try to sneak past the Dwarves that will be waiting."
Uraseil decided not to think about how they would get past the Dwarves right now, he had plenty of time for that later in the day. For now they had to get moving, and cover ground as quickly as possible before the Dwarves caught up to them.
"Let's get going. Got any questions?" he asked, as he took the first few steps into the woods.
Vael nodded, making a mental map of the the way in his head.
“Well, are we still heading for that rocky area you mentioned yesterday or was that only the plan if we moved immediately?” He asked after listening to the directions and followed Uraseil. Once they had been moving for a while and Vael started to get used to being awake again and regained the ability to think more than a few hour ahead he continued.
“Also, how much food do we have? I have some on me, but not more than two days’ worth for one person and that is with heavy rationing. Otherwise I can only think of things that will not be problems for a while and that we can save for later, such as the mountains. I don’t know how long it will take to reach the dwarven land travelling as we are, but the mountains will be cold and we could never survive there in our current gear.”
The light of the morning seemed almost threatening when he knew they had to stay out of sight. This part of the forest was comparatively open and offered no obvious places to hide. Hopefully that would not be necessary and he could just go on appreciating the easy terrain before reaching the more difficult, but probably also more protected one.
As the pair of Elves took the first few steps of their journey, Uraseil was taking mental notes of the path they had taken in case they were forces to flee back along it. He hoped that the combination of the fog and taking an unexpected route would keep them far away from the dwarves but the more Uraseil thought about the next few days, the more he suspected that they were already doomed to be captured or killed by the dwarves.
"The central part rocky area will be too difficult to reach with the dwarves around, unless they are taking up very different positions than I think they will. We are going to have to make our way around them, on the side of the hills nearby. That will be the toughest terrain we cross, but the dwarves won't go there, too many gaps that they would have trouble climbing around or jumping over. They might send some humans, but not many, and we will have the advantage if they do. There are plenty of narrow gaps in the rocks that can be easily defended." said Uraseil as he checked the small satchel he had slung over his shoulder.
"As for food, I have enough for myself for today but I will have to scavenge some more before we make camp tonight. I'll keep an eye out for edible plants. And yes, we will need some better gear once we cross the grasslands into dwarven territory. Hopefully we will come across a farm or small village that has escaped the notice of the dwarves...or maybe one that is abandoned. If we don't, we will have to steal from the humans, which I would prefer not to do. That would put us in too much danger, even if we aren't caught."
Uraseil frowned as he thought through the various villages they might travel close to, but couldn't think of any that the dwarves wouldn't have destroyed as they came through. Once he had given up on thinking it through, Uraseil glanced up at the sky, finding the position of the barely visible sun through the fog, and adjusted his direction.
“The closer we come to the border the harder it will be to find any place not controlled by dwarves or humans. Stealing or not, we may not find a place to get these things where we are not in danger.” He thought they may not find any place at all where they were not in danger, and ‘controlled’ was too mild a word in this instance. The invading armies had been known to burn most of what they passed to the ground and he did not know what, if anything, had been left to be merely controlled by them. He could see the maps before him as he thought of the areas they would go through. Just like their defeated units, entire towns were taken off them as the dwarves and humans drew further into the land.
The thoughts made him silent. He wanted to ask the general what had happened to him and how he ended up in that cave, also by himself, but was hesitant to do so. That story would not be any more cheerful than Vaelrindel’s own and he did not think it would necessarily be all that polite or appropriate to bring it up himself. Once they had been on their way for a while and he had not heard anything but the sounds of the forest he slowly calmed down and was not as anxious about the immediate danger of being found. He even took the time to stop when he saw some herbs that he thought he recognized.
“Wait, if we should gather food on the way we should not pass these by either.” He said as the first thing he had said in a good while and started pulling up the few, tiny plants he found. “We never know when or if we may find some again. They have some healing properties, do you see any more around here?” With the slim amount he got he got he didn’t know if they’d make any major difference, but he would sure feel stupid if one of them got hurt and he knew he had left them.
The elves had been travelling for a few hours when they finally hit the dense part of the forest and made a sharp turn to climb a nearby hill and gain access to a ridge line that led from where they were to the edge of the forest. Uraseil was starting to get nervous about their pace, but knew that there was no point in trying to go faster, as it would just make them tire out faster and end up not going as far before resting for the night. Making sure not to let his nerves show, he pushed ahead through the undergrowth, leading Vael up a narrow rocky path as the sun started to drop in the sky. They had not stopped for lunch, instead eating as they walked in order to cover as much ground as possible.
When Uraseil saw that his shadow was growing longer as the sun dropped in the mid-afternoon, he did some calculations and realised that they would not make it to the edge of the forest by nightfall. If they were to continue the following morning, they would need to leave early. Uraseil decided not to tell Vael that it would be another short rest that night, in the hopes that he may have miscalculated the distance and they would arrive near the edge of the forest shortly.
After walking for the morning in almost complete silence, Uraseil decided to learn some more about his companion in the afternoon. He spoke suddenly as the two of them climbed over a large log which had fallen on its side.
"How good are you with a sword? I see you carry one, but I have known many who only carry them for show."
The more difficult terrain had not bothered him much, having obstacles everywhere made it easier to think about where you put your feet and rather than about being tired. Despite the rather rough walk he felt more sleepy and hungry than physically exhausted anyway, for some reason. He had rather miscalculated how much more he could eat when walking all the time, but stubbornly refused to complain anything.
“Hum?” Vael looked up as the silence was broken. He had gotten used to silence. Both the journey this day and the passed ones with his guards had been quiet and he found it a bit of a relief to speak again.
“I do not carry it for show. I’ve been trained in sword fighting and I can use it, though you could argue the only fighting I’ve done has been for show.” He answered, crawling over the log.
“For what it’s worth I have fared rather well doing that, even against seasoned soldiers. Still, I have never actually had to rely on those skills in real combat with threat to my life so I do not know how well I will hold up when I have to fight for my life. You could test me some time, but I doubt we will have time and energy to spare for things like that in a good while.”