Bran O'Brian crouched among the hedge-groves, his dagger drawn as a man approached his position. Bran could smell the stench of oil and urine and quickly swallowed holding back his desire to gag. He crouched low holding his breath as the man drew closer. The man's armor clanked in the darkness as he went along his business. Bran's knees began to ache and his fingers grew numb form the cold, still he waited, silent and still as a stone. He knew his job and he performed it well. When the man was three paces past Bran's position he stalked forward matching the soldier's movements, hiding the sounds of his steps within the others. As soon as he came to a stop, and began to turn, Bran stood up from his position and with a quick stroke of his dagger ended his life.
He quickly caught the body and drew it over the hedge, dumping it to the ground and adjusting the hedge to hide its passage. Saying a quick prayer over his enemy's corpse Bran moved forward to the next sentry. With silent steps he crept up to the man's position. He was not as careful as the previous sentry, he was looking down the road, casually leaning against a tree as he cleaned a pipe with one hand and dug in his pocket with the other. A quick stab into the man's side as Bran covered his mouth was all it took. Bran lowered him to the ground, as he wondered if the man had any family.
It did not take long for Bran to eliminate the other men he encountered. Once his task was completed he let out the call of a Woodlark. Slowly shadowy forms emerged from the misty woods. Men and animals, a troop of forty men passed him, the last of a group of a hundred Irish conscripts, ragged, tired and torn, sent down with a much larger force of British soldiers to fight the French. The Army was routed and the English had failed to establish a foothold. Now Bran and this ragged band of survivors made their way east along the French coast hoping to find a way home.
Thinking of home caused Bran to think of his family farm, of the wife and three small children, he left behind when the British conscripted him to fight on this foreign shore. He had no idea why they were fighting other than they were sent to attack the French. He was angry at the British for pulling him and his countrymen forcibly from their homes and families to fight and die in someone else's bloody war. Above all he just wanted to get them all home.
Not all of the men were Irish conscripts, some like Eric, his Captain were English Regulars, and then there was the Scottish highlanders, only three remained of the sixty that were brought; The MacDougall brothers: Artair the older, a large bear like man who it was said had the patience and temperament of granite. Nothing seemed to move the man once he set himself and his opinion and Cailean the younger, not much more than a boy barely old enough to shave; lastly Sionn a wispy fox like man who was the best scout Bran had ever met.
Sionn ran past Bran and with a nod of respect and took point as the band of survivors crossed the field and once again disappeared into the woodlands that dotted the countryside. Bran took up the rear position, ensuring that everyone was accounted for and that there was no sign left behind of their travel. The bodies of the dead sentries were carried into the woods by the MacDougall brothers to be disposed of a mile off the road. They were stripped of all valuables and gear before the group continued.
Once again Bran said a prayer over the departed men and their families, before continuing on with the group. He and Sionn continued to hop positions every time they encountered any areas that may reveal the survivors passage, the lead scout quietly eliminating any witnesses and evidence of their passage while the rear scout moved forward to take the point. He regretted every time he had to kill someone especially civilians, and at Eric's urging the group had to stop twice to allow innocent families to pass instead of quieting them.
On the third night of hard travel, Eric asked for Bran to attend him in the section of their camp set aside for the few injured men that were still able to travel. As he approached the Captain he was nervous and filled with trepidation. Eric did not look good and it was rumored among the men that he was getting worse every day. "You called for me Captain?" Bran asked the man who lay bleeding in the cot in front of him.
"Bran, Good..." Eric stated between wet blood filled coughs. Sionn and his scouts have reported in and there is a large band of several hundred French soldiers blocking the road ahead ... they have set up a fortification and are checking all travelers. It is more than we can take on in a frontal assault ... We are forty against hundreds ... I am dieing and so are these others. We will not survive the next few days let alone the coming battle. These men are yours now for the leading ... show them to their destiny."
Bran looked at his Captain in shock. "Sir, I am no soldier, I am an Irish conscript. Back home I was a huntsman and a tracker, not a warrior, why-?"
"Which is exactly what this group needs-"Eric interrupted him. "-These men will not survive a battle; they need to move with stealth and guile, both of which you have shown aptitude for ... I have already discussed this with the sergeants and they agree ... you are the best choice ... the person most likely to lead the survivors out of France and hopefully home. Lead them, Captain, They are yours now. You will have to leave the supplies and any man who is too wounded to travel on his own."
Bran looked up all around him at the ragged tired and torn army and shook his head. "I can't leave you behind. If I do you will all be killed or captured."
He was interrupted by a loud wet cough from Eric, who then limply raised his arm to grasp Bran's shoulder in a surprisingly firm grip. "You will all die if you do not, and the sergeants are already prepared to ensure none of those left behind are captured. We are soldiers and death eventually comes to us all." He rasped as his body was once again wracked with coughs, followed by a sharp gasp and the Captains arm slid off of Bran's shoulder.