The Hunt, Part One
The summer was waning and the cooler air of autumn had already settled in the forests of the north. Wrapped in a heavy wool cloak and armed with the longbow he had made long before his arms had the strength to draw it, Admund had taken to the wilderness shortly after dawn. Fog hung above the ground, wrapping the trees and underbrush in a cool mist that would surely burn off before too long. He followed the Daen River west, until the elms and beech trees grew thick.
Admund was certain he was alone—at least, that is, if he did not count the hart that he had been tracking. Through a break in the trees, Admund watched the beast pause by the edge of the river. The hart drank, stopping once to sniff the air. Admund knew he was downwind of the creature—years of experience on the hunt had made avoiding detection second nature—so he knew there was no reason to fear discovery. He slowly drew one of the broadhead arrows from the quiver that hung from his belt. Keeping his eyes on the hart, Admund nocked the arrow and drew the string, taking silent aim.
He was about to release the arrow when the hart lifted its head once more, ears twitching, and bounded across the river and into the thicket on the far side. Admund swore at his misfortune. It was then that the sounds of horses intruded upon the otherwise silent morning.
Having lost his quarry, Admund turned his attentions to the approaching sounds. He was deep in the forests of Aradorn, over a full day’s journey from the nearest city or village and far from even the least-traveled roads. It was possible that they were simply travelers who had lost their way in the pre-dawn hours. It was, he decided, equally possible that they were bandits or highwaymen.
They came from the west, from the direction of the coast. A single courser and rider led the way, followed by three older draft horses pulling a large enclosed wagon. About half a dozen men walked beside and behind the wagon. The men were large and brutish, the product of long lives of hard work. They had leathery, sun-bronzed skin and black hair that they wore in either long braids or ponytails. Golden hoops adorned their ears and noses and curved, broad-bladed swords hung at their sides. Several of them bore large tattoos on their necks and exposed arms.
The rider wore brightly-colored silks under tarnished, mismatched pieces of plate armor; his men, however, were all dressed in homespun, leathers, and buckskin. They appeared to be corsairs, similar to those who raided the islands and coastlines of the southern kingdoms. However, corsairs rarely ventured this far north, especially with Woten longships crewed by bloodthirsty, battle-hardened marauders regularly sailing the frigid waves of the Northern Sea.
Corsairs also rarely ventured this far inland. They were currently several leagues from the coast and seemingly intent on journeying even further into the forest. And that wagon. Something about it gnawed at the pit of Admund’s stomach, an instinctual reaction that he had long ago learned to heed. Of simple construction, but with a single door built into the side that was secured with a heavy wooden bolt.
“By Kernow’s bow.” They weren’t corsairs, after all. They were— “Slavers.”
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