The arrow slew through the air and stabbed into the tender flesh of the young yew tree, less than an inch from his head. He turned quickly, but there was nobody to be seen. His keen eyes studied the leafy forest. There was no movement save for the rustle of greenery in the wind. He lifted a hand to stroke his coarse bristles.
The second arrow cut through the air, striking the ground at his feet. He stuck a step back. No marksman would be so shoddy as to fire at him twice and narrowly miss on both occasions. This was a warning, but why and who from?
“Show yourself!” he called out to the surrounding woods.
He narrowed his eyes, pausing before making a move as if to walk away, but another arrow stabbed into the outstretched arm of an old tree. There was a message attached. He glanced around, anxious that the archer had no chance to shoot him with his back turned. The parchment was pierced by the body of the arrow. He tore it free, slipping behind the protective hide of a sturdy oak.
The handwriting was a flowing script strange to his eyes. It spoke of an ambush planned on his travelling companions who lay on the path ahead awaiting his return. Should he trust the stranger’s warning? His gut answered in the affirmative.
It was clear that they hoped no harm to come to him.
He stuffed the parchment deep in his bag, heading off at speed for the clearing wherein his friends had made themselves a home. If they were taken by surprise in their current states then he might lose a few close acquaintances. None of his men were truly fit to fight after the bloody battle that had ensued the previous day.
He raced towards them, bark chippings and dead leaves skittering in the muddy undergrowth beneath his thudding feet. His heart raced in his chest like a drum marking the march of war. Cries of battle ripped the air as he neared the place where he had left them.
When his feet came to stop at the clearing he realised that the attack was already over. Blood and wreckage strew the site. What little valuables that they had possessed had been pilfered and pocketed. He brushed a hand back through his tangled hair, catching the bristles on his chin with the edge of his palm.
A twig snapped behind him, but it was too late to turn.
A knife jammed against the small of his back, a slender gloved hand covering his lips. “Don’t make a sound. They’ll hear us,” a soft voice murmured. The stranger tugged him back towards the trees. “They’re waiting just over that tussock. It’s you they came for.”
Once they were deep enough into the trees for camouflage, the hand was removed from his mouth and he was permitted to turn and face his captor. She dropped the hood of her cloak.
“What do they want me for?” he asked.
“You have something precious to them.” She looked up at him with wide, urgent eyes. He put his hand to the gold chain around his neck. “They must not have it,” she whispered.
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