As they had been taught, they made their path irregular. They zigged and zagged, they made wide curves in their paths. Anything to upset the assumptions an archer needed to predict a simple path. Animals bolted in a straight line and, as Raulin wished the hunters knew, they weren’t animals.
Lightning flashed across his vision, the same as in the wine merchant’s house in Iascond, and he instinctively dropped to a roll. An arrow whizzed by, right where his torso would have been a moment earlier. He stalled only for a moment to collect his bearings and launched forward once again, lungs, legs, and anger burning.
Skill and luck, however, tipped the balance in favor of the hunters. Thenik was in front of Raulin’s right. He zigged and was still shot clean through his calf. He hopped, slowing himself down so he didn’t trip.
Raulin saw Thenik was only feet from the edge of the forest. He moved behind him, tackled him, and the two rolled into the woods. As soon as he recovered, he yanked the trirec by his collar and dragged him behind a tree.
The three looked at each other, shoulders heaving, nerves frazzled, eyes wide. “I’ve never been great at medicine. What do…what do we do for Thenik?
He saw the unspoken answer cross Jakith’s eyes: leave him, he’s a liability to us and Arvarikor now. But, instead, he said, “We need to snap the arrow, pull it through, and care for heavy bleeding. This will take time we do not have right now. Why are they still hunting us?”
Raulin had been questioning the same thing. “I didn’t know the rules. I think someone needed to complete the contract and we left the sword. I’m sorry.”
Jakith sucked in a growling breath and paced, his hands clenching hard at his sides. He stopped suddenly. “No use crying over piss in the milk bucket.”
“Thank you, but we still need to act. Those cries they yelled mean they will still hunt us.” He turned the corner and no longer saw the party of men on the roof. “We don’t have many choices. We can’t run with a crippled man.” Raulin couldn’t run all over the woods anyway, possibly reaching the end of the invisible leash with Telbarisk.
“We give up,” Thenik said, dismayed.
Raulin snapped his head to the trirec. “We will not give up. I’d rather die. We can return to the maze and complete it, now that most of the men are gone. We can hide. Or, we can make our last stand.”
“Take the fight to them? Hunt them instead?” Jakith asked, hopeful.
“Don’t sound so eager,” he said, though he was smiling. “All right. Let’s turn this estate into a chicken coop.”
* * *
Sweat dripped down Raulin’s neck, down his back, soaking his clothes. He fiddled with his knife, Jakith’s rope laying next to him.
“Course!” he heard some five hundred feet down the road. A bloodhound gave tongue, baying at the scent of an injured man. Another joined in, making Raulin wonder how one would train a bloodhound to hunt people. And why. Both thoughts caused him to shudder.
“Look, fellows. They abandoned him. See how he crawls in the thicket, desperate and afraid, like a screaming rabbit in a trap.”
The group came into view. Two men held the leashed hounds. There were six archers all together, quivers and bows slung on their backs. It was more than he had anticipated, but it wasn’t going to be an issue. All they needed was the marquess.
One-by-one he aimed his knife until a man with graying hair and a slight build caused his hand to cramp before he could throw. He had promised Jakith and Thenik that he could ferret out their target so long as they didn’t ask questions.
He waited. Sixty feet, fifty, forty, thirty…he could have done it at twenty, but decided that, since he had missed that record, he better stick with ten. He stood, stepped out, and threw.
The lasso was true and slipped over the marquess’s body. He yanked, tightening the rope, then pulled when the man went down, snapping his bow. “What…?” he yelled.
By the time the men realized their leader was gone, Raulin had him standing with a knife to his throat. “Hello there on the roof. Why are you shooting at us?”
The marquess struggled and Raulin’s wrist was killing him, but he had no intention of really harming the man. Three of the archers had knocked arrows and were pointing them in Raulin’s direction. Jakith ran out to shield Thenik, both knives drawn.
No one said anything for a few tense moments. “We’re at a stand-off, then,” Raulin said, breaking the silence. “You want to kill me for holding your marquess hostage and I want to kill your marquess for hosting this disgusting hunt for men.”
“He’s not the marquess,” one man said. “He’s just a hunter. I’m the marquess. Let him go and I promise to take his place.”
“Mmm,” Raulin said. “I think I have the right man. But, if you want to play these games, then I suppose you won’t mind if I slit his throat.”
“No,” another man said. He wore a spring green jerkin and brown breeches of superior cloth “He’s…he’s lying. Just don’t kill him.”
“Now we’re at an even playing field. I have what you want and you can give us what we want in exchange. Let’s open negotiations.”
“What do you want?” the man in green and brown said.
“You’re asking a thief what he wants? What do you think we want?”
“Money? We have none on us.”
“That would be odd if you did. I would have already stolen it, anyway. Here’s what we want. A horse, six hundred gold, a doctor, and additional assurances.”
“The game is finished, children. Done. Say it.” They looked at each other and mumbled. “Say it!”
“It’s done!” the man said again.
“You, too,” Raulin said, gritting his teeth as he pressed the knife into the marquess’s throat.
“I officially close the games,” he said between deep breaths.
“You will not hunt any trirec ever again, or you will feel the full wrath of one hundred men invading your lands in secret. We will come at night, in the shadows, from the forests, and we will pick off your families one-by-one. Your heirs, your wives, your daughters first. Then, when you cretins re-marry, your new wives and your swaddling infants. We will kill your mistresses, your dalliances, your favorite whores, and all the illegitimate children you’ve had by them. We will kill your nephews, your nieces, your siblings, your aunts and uncles, your parents, your cousins. We will not care who they are and how much they can bribe us. Then, when you are finally alone, when no one will go near you, when your seed rots in your groin and your line is barren, then we will come for you. Every. Man. Here.”
He was pleased to see a few of them had drawn pale at the consideration. “You have our word,” their spokesman said.
“Your word means nothing. Vile animals such as yourself never keep their word. Know that Arvarikor is watching you and you already owe them the lives of the men you killed today.”
“We forfeit,” he said, tossing his quiver and bow to the ground.
“You forfeit your right to revenge on this matter.”
“Yes, we swear!” he said, looking distraught.
“Because your word is pig tripe in a shoe trencher, I will be bringing your marquess back to his manor. You remaining five will be hogtied here. As soon as we get our horse and our gold and leave the estate, then will you have your rescue.”
“How long is that?” on man asked.
“I’d pray we’re not men that dawdle.” Raulin jerked his head to the right. “All weapons in a pile. Swords, bows, arrows, that little knife the man in white and gray has tucked into his boot.”
Raulin told Jakith to frisk each man after they turned in their weapons. “Now, I want each of you to pick a tree out of eyesight from each other and stand in front of it.”
“What are they doing?” Jakith asked.
“Tie them up,” he said, loosening the rope around the marquess and tossing it to them. “We should have just enough. Get creative; they don’t have to all be saddled to a tree.”
“I’ve heard of a knot where you tie a man to a branch by his arms, so that he’s just on his toes. If he relaxes, it tightens the rope to his wrists. The hands fall off, you see, unless he dances.”
“I’ll leave the orchestrations to you. Check to make sure Thenik is okay, then meet me back here.”
Raulin was half-convinced that there would be some trick, some daring rescue attempt while he walked the two houndsmen, the marquess, and Jakith back to the chateau. He realized it was the fear that spoke to that potential. The marquess was so assured of his lot in life that he had never considered he was playing with dangerous prey when he set up this hunt. He had never considered this happening, just like all nobles failed to see themselves as paupers or unfavored at court.
They were paid six hundred gold by a very flustered steward. His second groom was called, since his head was actually one of the marksmen tied in the forest, and a suitable mare was brought along as they marched back to the forest. And a timid man, whose hand shook as he corrected his spectacles, was sent with the group
“You said I’d be freed!” the marquess protested as he stumbled back down the road.
“I never said when. Did you think we were going to leave you in your chateau with all those servants at your beck and call? My back itches just thinking about it.”
The forest was as they had left it. The men were calling out to each other, having some sort of conversation over the turn of events. Thenik had moved a little to make himself more comfortable, but at least there hadn’t been any escapes.
Raulin shoved the marquess lightly and let him go. “Go tend to your men. Your staff will be by shortly with knives to cut them down. You and your men, and me and my men, are through. I am showing you great leniency by not killing you. Show me you have some honor, some integrity, by letting us leave.”
The doctor went to Thenik, who didn’t even scream when he pushed the arrow through. After it was cleansed and bound, Jakith carried Thenik to the horse. “I will pay you twenty gold to bring him to town and see that he cared for.”
Jakith titled his head for a moment. “And I will pay you twenty gold to negotiate our release and safety with the miartha.”
“Deal,” he said. “Be safe.”
Jakith jumped on the horse and helped Thenik up in front of him. He waved once before they trotted down the road out of sight.
And it was done. He disappeared into the woods, following along the road until he was clear of the estate. The farther he walked, the deeper he thought of the events. And the farther he walked, the more afraid he grew.