The hunted man stumbled when the first arrow flew, and that saved him. He caught himself on a nearby tree as the arrow struck it solidly, just over his shoulder. With a quick glance back, he took off, running on feet moist with burst blisters.
His horse had simply laid down the night before, pushed beyond endurance. He'd cursed his stupidity. Why hadn't he dropped the saddle bags? Why hadn't he taken a fresh, unencumbered horse and led the one laden with gear behind him? Better yet, why had he not simply smiled vapidly and agreed with the leaders of the men who now pursued him, then hurried home?
Because of that meeting, his retinue had been killed before the next dawn. He'd avoided their fate only due to blind luck. Woken shortly before the dawn, he'd been watching the sunrise out the window of his room at the inn. The hired killers had chased his men from the stables at the rear of the inn into an alley that led to the streets — an alley which ran beneath his window. He'd hurried out the back door of the inn to his horse, dashing through the kitchen, much to the surprise of the innkeeper's wife and daughters.
Their steeds had been prepared by the stableboy for an early departure, for he'd planned a hasty return home to prepare for what now seemed inevitable. And, of course, his horse was laid down with his gear, including gifts meant for acquaintances in the city. He'd not thought to loose the heavy saddlebags, even as he urged his mount to a killing pace.
Last night, his horse had slowed to a trot, and then a walk, and then had simply stopped, and no amount of urging from the panicked rider could get it moving again. He'd gotten off the horse and finally risked removing the saddlebags, when it had collapsed and died. So quickly, in fact, that'd he narrowly avoided being crushed under its weight.
He'd grabbed a skin of water and some coins, and took off at a brisk walk. Up and down the low hills he'd walked along the King's Way, for he was no woodsman to simply cut through the forests, and he'd vainly hoped to meet some travelers who might offer him shelter.
He'd neither seen nor heard his pursuers since he'd charged out of the alleyway, the killers' voices raised in alarm as they avoided his horse's hooves. He hadn't looked back, sickened by the cries for aid from his last surviving escort, left bleeding on the ground.
He'd finally come close, so very close to home and safety. As he'd walked, he'd put off his exhaustion and the steady, wet pain in his feet with images of rescue just past the next few hills.
But now he ran, even as he heard hoofbeats behind him. He crashed through the brush off the King's Way, and heard another arrow whistle through the air nearby.
He had no thoughts of reaching home nor plans for escape. Tried to the point of breaking, breath already coming painfully into his lungs, he ran through the autumnal forest, through a sea of branches and rocks and brightly colored leaves, under a sky grey with thick clouds. He didn't even dare to look back.
That was a mercy, for the first blow from the mounted pursuer struck him cleanly across the shoulders and neck, ending his life in a brief flash of agony.
The archer lowered his nocked bow as he watched the prey fall before the rider's axe. The pursuers, four in all, gathered around the body.
"Unlucky," said their leader as he looked down at the corpse. "Surprised he didn't find some respite on the Way."
The archer, who had been raised nearby, demurred. "Way's barely used," he grunted. "Especially this time of year. Most take the rivers, and even those are likely battening down for the rains."
The leader nodded, and the archer said, "What do we do with him now?"
The leader said, "Wrap him in his cloak, and then you two," nodding at the last two men, "can carry him back a ways to the ravine. Roll him down the hill. The animals will take care of him." He rolled the corpse over with his foot, and took in the man's purse and the fine sword he wore. "See what he's got on him, first."
A light drizzle began to fall then, the first of the storms that presaged the brutal downpours that made quick work of autumn in those parts. Water filled the dead man's open eyes like tears as the killers looted his corpse.
The rains had begun.
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