There was a path that ran through the forest, marking the way they’d come. It had not been there before heavy boots tromped through tender foliage leading weary horses who dragged their feet and hung their heads, halfheartedly attempting to nibble as they moved. Damaging the ecosystem had not been at the forefront of their minds at the time. Getting out, getting safe, that’s what they’d all been concerned with. Maybe someday someone in their troupe would mourn the trampled flowers, but not likely any day soon.
Shelter for the night was a thick copse of trees in the heart of a forest so lush that it blocked out the sun at its highest point. This spot was chosen because they knew it would conceal them, though they were aware the enemy would be just as concealed if they found their way this far in. The hope was that the disturbances made by anxious fleeing would be overlooked, and they would be another day ahead of their pursuers.
They had next to nothing. Three men and one young girl, and all they had between them were the clothes they wore, the horses they rode, and some foraged food. Berries and roots discovered along the way, and two rabbits the girl had caught by imitating her father’s game snares.
She, the girl, was why they were here. When the task had been started, there had been many more of them. Two dozen men had ridden toward the job. They’d been under the impression that it would be simple. Get her, get out. The contract had said nothing about opposition. And of course, the opposition had been numerous. At least there had been no walls to climb to get in, just a gate to break down on the way out. The guards had not moved against them until they’d had the girl in hand, but of course when they did, they were formidable. No one then wondered why there hadn’t been an alarm upon their entry, or why the gate had been raised and welcoming. The guards were all skill and viciousness, never doubting for a moment that they would overcome.
Archers and swordsmen cut the invading numbers in half before any of the rescuing troupe knew what was happening. All the guards fighting around the girl as if she resided in an invulnerable bubble. Trained, the realization came later, to protect her at all costs at the same time that they assured nobody would abscond with her.
The ferocity of their will, their ferocity in fighting, their readiness, and the fortress that surrounded them were not within the contract. Neither had it mentioned that all these things belonged to the girl’s father. Had any of that information been available, perhaps events would not have gone so poorly. Maybe they wouldn’t have taken the contract at all. Some losses had been expected, yes. They were even acceptable. The slaughter they had faced was too much.
Of course, when the truth came into the light, all was painfully clear. Why would a contract state any of those things if penned by the inexperienced hand of the very girl who needed to be rescued? All she’d known was to offer money. A large enough purse would call to any would-be savior. She’d gotten her desires, and now they were three men remaining out of twenty four, fighting for their lives and hers against a horde of angry watchmen.
If it had been so simple as to give the girl back, it probably would have been done long ago – despite some moral misgivings on that idea. But her father’s men were out for blood, would leave no soul living to tell the tale. Death would come to any they caught. The girl would be taken back, punished. In a few days’ time the routine would go back to normal, aside from the few less lives in the world.
Their only hope was to keep running. She had paid them half already and promised to double the remaining when they were in the clear. Two of the men were swayed enough by that. One had been willing to see it to the end even if she hadn’t had the rest of the contract’s bounty. He alone had argued against handing her back over – before being convinced that if they thought they would live for it, it was the right move. She’d wanted out bad enough to orchestrate this maneuver. He would see her to her freedom, no matter what. Bruised and bloodied as they were, the three would continue on until whatever end Fate produced. Be it their own ends, or the resolution of the girl’s contract.
Dangerous moments had come too many times already. Once hearing the shouts of their pursuers and the angry nickers of horses pushed too hard. Once being upon a ridge and seeing the riders down below – a moment they were not sure they’d gone unseen themselves in. The three knew that with continued fatigue and hunger, they were getting sloppier and more careless. The most recent example of that being the path they’d left. Silently they lamented the idea that after all this, their mission might collapse with a foolish mistake.
Blissfully, the girl seemed ignorant to most of the plight. She understood fundamentally that an escape was being made, a chase was under way, and death was a promise on stale winds. She did not, however, appear to know how closely the blade swung over their heads. It seemed to the trio that she thought the further they went, the safer they were. Her demeanor lightened by the hour, and she’d recently begun to sing soft songs to herself as they rode. None of them had the heart to quiet her while they were on the move, it wasn’t like a little song would be the deciding factor of their doom when they were making so much noise by riding. But they begged her silence when they stopped.
Even though the night was cold and all four of them shivered, they dared not make a fire. They ate their small stores raw and tried to not think of what might be outside the treeline. The girl tried to make conversation, but none of the men were in the mood for it, so she sulked a bit and played with random items off the ground until she curled up and slipped into slumber.
The night wore on, they assumed the moon rose and centered itself high in the sky despite the fact that they couldn’t see it through the tree canopy. The nocturnal animals began to make their noises, which made the men jumpy at first, but they grew used to the sounds after a time. They stopped listening to every rustle of brush, every snapping twig, hearts pounding and muscles tensed. Soon, despite their prior vigilance and worry, they began to doze off one by one, without ever even discussing a watch.
Suffering woke one of the men. The sounds of his fellow travelers being beaten by energetic and angry fists, being kicked by road weary feet in heavy boots. The dull thuds of flesh being abused were amplified when they started to have matching sensation on his own body. A thick gurgling sound signified the death of one of his companions, though he couldn’t begin to guess which one. Opening his eyes revealed only a haze of red. The guards were saying nothing, he assumed that they had moved in with little sound as well, not that any of the three rescuers would have noticed if they’d pushed through the treeline with elephants and trumpets. A sharp sensation in his guts brought his focus away from the others to his own impending end. He’d never been cut before, not like this, but he still knew that his stomach had been opened and his insides were now out. His hands went to try to push them back in and he felt the slick surfaces of tender bits which were never meant to see the outside world.
There was just enough time for him, in his panic, to hear the high pitched giggle of the girl, who had to be standing over him almost directly, and her near-ethereal voice murmuring in an amused tone, stray words finding his ears and telling him that the game was over.