Sabine runs through the twilight. Her lungs heave for air. A branch whips against her face as she plunges through the woods, running too fast to sustain. Darkness deepens in the forest around her. The moon gazes down from a blue-black sky, it’s hard white eye, remote, cold and merciless. She looks back in panic. Something else moves through the woods, shapes in the darkness. She is running fast, faster than she can keep up for very long. The figures behind the teen girl are growing closer in the night. She sees moonlight gleam on a blade and can hear the chains of the bounty hunter’s shackles.
She stifles a scream and runs on. Her breath streams out in the cold night air. She splashes across a small cold stream, and then up the far bank. Ahead some lights twinkle through the forrest in the darkness. The trees thin. It is a small forest village. Smoke wavers up gray through the air and cheery yellow lights shine from some of the windows of the squat group of hovels. She staggers forward gasping for breath in the middle of a muddy street, really not much more than a path. Her eyes plead with the darkness seeking any escape. A sign hangs over one of the doors, the paint on it barely legible, but the mere existence of the sign is good enough. An inn. People. Safety.
She pushes on the roughhewn door, it creaks open letting in a gust of cold night air. Candles flicker then she shuts it behind her quickly. She tries not to look desperate, there is a moment of silence in the smoky room. Faces turn toward her. Firelight shines orange on the hearth, welcoming flames leaping and crackling. The cheery hubbub of conversation rises up again. Sabine creeps forward, uncertain, trying to calm heaving lungs. Her face is dirty, her clothes ragged. The innkeeper stirs behind the bar.
“Out with you, no beggars here.” he says crossly.
“Please, sir,” she says. Her voice is timid, strained with exhaustion. Her hands tremble, she would have said more, might have said, but the door suddenly flings open with a crash. Three men stand there, cloaked and hooded. They stride into the room. The girl shrinks from them, terror in her eyes.
“Come along,” says one of the men roughly. “Time to be getting home.”
“No!” Says the girl in fright.
“Always running away,” says the man sneeringly, his gaze flicking around the room.
“Always running, she is.”
There is silence now. the inn is full, but the three men are huge, swords visible beneath their cloaks. A set of manacles hang from one man’s belt. There is violence in them, a hard, coiled ruthlessness waiting for any excuse to strike. The villagers sitting at the tables and at the narrow bar look down at their mugs in shame. They are simple folk, woodsman, hunters, charcoal burners, and tanners. They are not warriors. They have no help to give the frightened girl.
“Please?” she begs. “Someone!” says the young girl, her voice already hopeless.
The first man grabs her by the wrist. She struggles, but she cannot break his vice like grip.
“Seems like she’s set on stayin’.”
The voice is dry, calm, and conversational. It comes from a dark corner of the room. Sabine sees her chance and wrests her arm free. The three men turn, their faces ugly.
It is Brander Noke, the man called Wolf. Green cloaked, in brown studded leathers. He sits alone at a table, a mug of ale in one hand.
“Keep your own counsel,” growls the obvious leader, the one with the shackles.
Wolf smiles and takes a long draught of his ale.
“Thought so,” sneers one of the other men.
“Ah, so you are capable of thought?” says Wolf pleasantly. “Frankly, I’m surprised.”
“What’ll surprise you is my blade in your throat if you don’t shut your mouth.”
“You’re coming with us, sweetheart,” says the man with the manacles. He unhooks them from his belt and makes a grab for the girl. She evades him this time, moving unusually fast.
“Like I said says Wolf, “the girl seems set on staying.”
“She ain’t a girl. She’s a breed, dark elf half-breed” says one of the men. “And she’s ours.”
With the rasp of steel, one of the bounty hunters drawls his sword and advances on Wolf.
“Had enough of your tongue, wood rat. You ain’t the law.”
Wolf explodes to his feet. His sheathed sword is in one hand. The bounty hunter goes to strike and Wolf’s blade blurs free.
“And there you’re wrong,” he growls. “I am the law.”
Using his scabbard as a shield he blocks the bounty hunters first blow. There is a clash of steel. The other bounty hunters draw their weapons. The patrons shrinking back against the walls dodging out of the way. The girl slides behind Wolf, deftly snatching one of knives from his belt without him realizing.
“I don’t care if you are a King’s Ranger,” the leader of the bounty hunters says with a sneer. “You’re all alone. We’re getting paid, and out here we’ve got no use for the law.”
The bounty hunters begin to close on the Ranger and the young girl. Sabine darts out and stabs one of the men in the leg. A vicious fight unfolds in the tavern, but the brutality of the bounty hunters is nothing compared to the seasoned skill of the Ranger. The fight ends as quickly as it began.
“You’re safe now, girl,” says Wolf. “Who are you?”
“Sabine, but that doesn’t matter. You can’t save me,” she says, her voice hopeless.
“What do you…” begins Wolf.
One of the bounty hunters stirs, apparently he is not completely unconscious, or dead. He tries to get up making a move towards his blade. Wolf casually turns and kicks him in the face.
“What do you mean?” he says turning back to the girl, but she is gone.
Wolf shrugs. He gets his pack and nods to the other patrons of the tavern. They are stunned and silent. His hand suddenly goes to his belt where his knife once was. He frowns, pushes the door open and heads off into the night. It is time to meet up with his men. Leave is over.
Middle of the forest, Wolf travels through the morning light. He moves fast even though there is no path, and he’s carrying a big pack and weapons.
He can smell the wood smoke of a campfire, he begins to move silently. He comes to the edge of a clearing, he looks out from behind the cover of a copse of trees. A small fire burns in a careful circle of stones. A pan with bacon in it sizzles. A huge man crouches over it. Across from him, another man sits whittling. Wolf ghosts up behind the huge man. The other watches from across the fire, his face expressionless. Wolf slides a knife against the big man’s throat. It is one of his crew: Flynt Tanner. All three men laugh, though Flynt shakes his head in irritation that Wolf was able to creep up on him, and Corser failed to alert him.
The fourth member of their crew, Drustan, appears. He silently helps himself to the bacon.
“Find any new recruits for Janklow’s crew?” asks Flynt.
Wolf shakes head in disgust.
“No one wants to come to the borderlands. Let alone thinks much of ‘em. No worries though, mate. ‘expect we find good men in these parts, if’n we look ‘ard enough. Didn’t spend much time in Norn. Can’t stand the place. Went and…”
Wolf’s voice trails away, he stares into the fire. Seeing the ghost of his dead fiancé dancing in the flames, he thinks about her grave that he visited on leave, and the tragedy he blames himself for. The other three pretend they did not hear his unfinished sentence, knowing all too well the burden Wolf carries.
“Never had much liking for the city of Norn myself, “says Corser quickly, wanting to fill the silence. “To fine for me, and all of them big buildings.”
“Lotta people,” says Drustan quietly.
Flynt spits into the fire. “And we’re expected to fight and die out here for ‘em? Spill our blood for the delicate lords and ladies of the court and his gracious bloody Majesty the King?”
Wolf raises an eyebrow. “Sounds like treason.” Then he shrugs “We’re Rangers. It’s what we do.”
Flynt looks a little guilty and stokes the fire.
Drustan looks up suddenly as if he has sensed something. Steps away from the fire and sniffs the wind carefully. He turns back and looks at Wolf, a strange expression on his face.
Several miles away, a caravan is in trouble. Bad trouble…
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