“After him men! Don’t let him get away!” Yelled the gruff voice of the bandit leader, Turow. The man was large and his shoulders easily as wide as a horses. He and his men—about ten of them—were running as quickly as they could through the thick brush of the Triton forest. The forest lay as a border between the Beacon Kingdom and the Animas Kingdom. Usually the forest and other borders were patrolled by guardsmen from each kingdom. Many traders came through the forest to both kingdoms respectfully, so it was important that the paths be safe to traverse.
However, at this moment, bandits were running after some prey. They had happened upon the boy and his travelling party. Or rather, they had caused the party to have some troubles. One of the bandits had knocked one of the wheels from the carriage straight off. As the party stopped to assess the damage and try to repair it, the bandits struck. They swept in like a plague and looted the trunks that had been tied to the top of the carriage and held the riders captive. Unfortunately for the bandits, the travelling party had been a small one from the Beacon Kingdom. There were no women dressed in lavish cloth or draped in golden jewelry. There were only three men in drab, travelling cloaks. But there had been one good thing about this robbery.
“Hey boss! I think I might have found something!” called one of the bandits. He was hunched over, his long greasy black hair falling over his scarred face. The man’s hands were inside of a trunk, rummaging around past the silks and cloths.
“What is it Walcune?” Turow replied, making his way with heavy footsteps to the man.
The smaller man, Walcune, held up something that glittered gold in the sunlight breaking through the trees, “Ain’t this the royal seal of the family in charge of Beacon right now?”
Turow grabbed the spherical object from him and inspected it, turning it this way and that in his hands. A wicked grin spread over his face.
“Well, I’ll be,” he muttered to himself. Turow turned to his men, “We caught ourselves a big one today boys!” His grin widened, “One of these ‘ere lads is a member of the royal family. That means we can catch a hefty price for ‘is ‘ead!”
The sound of a sword sliding against a sheath rang through the damp forest air. Turow pointed the end of his broadsword at the man closest to him. The man shrank away timidly, turning his face from Turow.
“Now,” Turow growled, “Which one of yous is worth me some gold?” Turow moved his sword to point at each member of the travelling party. They each reacted in the same manner—trying to move as far away from the sharpness of Turow’s blade as possible. All, except one that is.
“Oh?” Turow said, a curious tone adding to his voice, “What’s this? Ain’t you afraid of me boy?”
The male under the cloak chuckled slightly, his face hidden by the hood of his cloak, “I’ve been taught not to fear animals—especially stupid ones.”
Turow’s face twisted in to an angry snarl, “Whaddya say, you brat?” The larger man used the end of his sword to pull back the boy’s cloak. The boy—no older than 16—looked up at Turow with steady eyes that were the colour of the richest chocolate. His skin was fair, with a bit of a tan to it, perhaps from being outside. But the smoothness of the skin gave away his age. His dark hair had been cropped short as if to keep him from drawing attention to himself.
“What do we have ‘ere,” Turow murmured. His eyes twinkled viciously, “A pretty boy, I see. We could get a ‘igh price from you alone. Foreign slave traders are always asking for the pretty young ones, ripe for breaking. What do you say boy?” Turow asked, trailing his sword along the fabric of the boy’s cloak. He used his sword to open the cloak and show the slim body the boy had, “Do you want to be a rich man’s pet?”
The boy’s lip curled up dangerously, “Filthy pig,” he growled before spitting in Turow’s face. Turow let out a rippling roar of a yell before stumbling back a step.
“You little—!” Anger clouded Turow’s eyes as he regained his footing. He readied his sword in his hands as he glared at the boy, “You’ll pay for that, little worm!” Turow charged forward, his sword held steadfastly in front of him. The boy darted sideways, rolling across the ground, just as Turow struck. Turow’s sword stuck in to the thick trunk that the boy had been sitting against just moments before.
One of the men that had been travelling with them jumped up then and threw himself against Turow.
“Run now!” The man yelled at the boy. With only a bit of hesitation, the boy scrambled to his feet and ran. A yell ripped itself from Turow’s throat as the burly man threw the smaller man from him. The thin man hit the tree with a sickening thud of his head.
“You’ll get what’s coming to ya soon enough!” Turow spat in the direction of the man who now slumped lifelessly against the tree trunk. Turow snarled menacingly, tearing his sword from its confines within the tree. He thrust it to point in the direction that the boy had run in.
“Don’t just stand there with your mouths open like seals! Get ‘im!” Turow commanded. His men reacted quickly, running in to the brush after the boy. Turow then turned to look at the two men who remained of the party.
“I ‘ope you didn’t think you had a chance of survival after that little stunt,” Turow growled, positioning his body to tower over the men. Fear widened the eyes of the second man.
“Please, please have mercy,” the man groveled.
“Mercy?” Turow asked, “I’ve never ‘eard of the word,” With that, Turow raised his sword and brought it down swiftly over the men. He had long since mastered the art of cutting through bone and the sinew of muscle. He didn’t even need to swing twice anymore. Wearing a satisfied grin, Turow walked away from what remained of the two men. He pushed aside a stray branch before going in to the forest to join his men in the chase—in the hunt.
The boy ran as quickly as his feet could carry him. He wasn’t used to the rough terrain of the forest, but he adapted as well as he could. His cloak kept getting caught on stray branches and bushes full of brambles. He only faltered in his step for a second before throwing the piece of fabric away from him. By removing the dull brown cloak, he revealed the bright scarlet clothing underneath. Only looking back for a moment to see if his pursuers were on his tail, the boy returned to running.
His breath was coming in quick pants despite his constant physical training. He could hold his own in a swordfight, but his stamina for foot chases seemed to be lacking something fierce. He felt the fire beginning in his legs. How much longer could he keep this pace up? Even as he thought that, he could feel himself slowing. He couldn’t do this much longer.
“Keep going lads!” Turow shouted from somewhere much closer than comfortable, “These ‘ere are our woods! He can’t escape from us ‘ere!”
The boy’s heart started to beat even faster than it was already thumping in his chest. Turow was correct; the boy didn’t have even an inkling of where he was going. He steeled himself with a quick shake and continued running. Soon enough he would have to run across something or someone that could be able to help him. If only he had his sword, the boy thought. He had hidden it on the coach under one of the benches in a hidden compartment. No use complaining now, he chastised himself.
He could hear the gang of bandits catching up to him. Any moment now, they would be upon him. Frantically, the boy looked around. The branches of the trees were all too high to jump to so he couldn’t climb a tree. The brush wasn’t thick enough to hide in and the bandits would probably be able to track him easily. Like Turow had said, the bandits could easily tell the difference between tracks made from a deer from tracks made by a panicking teenage boy. The boy kept running, trying to focus his last remaining energies on the effort. What was that up ahead? It was a fence! Maybe there was someone there to help him! He ran up to the fence but couldn’t see any form of gate. He ran to the left for a bit and then to the right once more.
“Hello?” He called, “Is anyone there?” But he received no answer. The sounds of branches breaking made the boy turn around. He found himself face to face with Turow and his gang of bandits.
Turow smirked maliciously at the boy, “What’s wrong? Run out of steam?” He asked, a gruff laugh escaping from him. The chuckle spread across his men and the boy looked at each one anxiously. They circled around him, effectively cutting off any chance of his escape. He heard the sound of a bow being tightened. He turned to see the man from earlier, Walcune, with an arrow pointed threateningly at the boy.
“We don’t want no trouble,” Walcune mumbled, his eyes telling a different story. The boy swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing slightly.
“Now,” growled Turow, “Come with us, all nice and quiet like, and we won’t ‘ave to ‘urt yous none.”
The boy lowered his head. What could he do? This was such a hopeless situation. He swayed slightly where he stood. His hands touched the cool wood of the fence he was backed up against. A spark flashed across his gaze. He took a few steps forwards, towards the bandits.
“That’s a good boy,” Turow hummed softly. He was going to get a mighty good sum of gold for this one! He reached out his hand for the boy. But at that moment the boy looked up and smirked at Turow. The boy turned and ran at the fence.
“Stop ‘im!” Turow roared, “He’s trying to escape!” The boy vaulted himself over the fence just as he heard the harsh snap of an arrow being released from a taut bowstring. It was only a split second later that he felt a searing pain in his upper right thigh. He cursed under his breath as he made it over the wall. He tumbled when he hit the ground, unable to catch his weight on his feet.
“Well, don’t just stand there!” Turow bellowed from the other side of the fence, “Go get ‘im!”
“But boss,” came the small reply from one of the men, “Dontcha know what’s on the other side of that there fence?”
“What does it matter?” Turow growled.
“That’s the Shifter’s land,” said the man again.
There was silence for a moment, then the low chortle of Turow could be heard, “Serves ‘im right for runnin’ from me. Even what I was offerin’ ‘im was better than what lies beyond this fence,” Turow chuckled once more, “C’mon lads, let’s go back to our catch and see what kind of gold we can get for the things they left be’ind,”
The boy listened as the footsteps retreated from the other side of the fence. What had they been saying? He was on the Shifter’s land? Who and or what was a Shifter? The boy shifted his weight forward and started to stand only to be reminded by a startling pain that he had an arrow in his thigh. He hissed and rolled on to his left side. He grabbed the shaft of the arrow and pulled slightly. He quickly regretted it and curled up in response to the pain flaring in his leg. But he had to get the arrow out of his leg. It wouldn’t surprise him if the head was laced with a poison of some sort, knowing bandits that is.
The boy removed one of his dyed leather wrist cuffs and placed it in to his mouth. He bit down—hard—on the leather and wrapped his hand around the arrow’s shaft once more. He took a deep breath through his nose and then pulled will all his strength. He thought he was going to bite through his wrist cuff with the way his jaw clenched down on the material. He threw the arrow from him and curled his body in on itself. The pain was even worse when the arrow was extracted from his skin. Hopefully it hadn’t done too much damage to the muscles in his legs. He had been lucky it missed the artery running through the appendage there. He opened his eyes and rolled back over. He could feel the blood soaking his pant leg. He needed to stop the bleeding. But his vision was already blurring from the loss of blood and the pain hazing his mind.
“Hey!” Came a voice. The boy looked up, his vision fading and his eyelids growing heavier by the second, “What are you doing there? This is private property—hey are you listening to me?” The owner of the voice was just a blob of blurred shapes to the boy. When the other person squatted down in front of the boy, his features were just a bit clearer and he was able to see the colour of the man’s eyes.
“Wait a minute, you’re hurt,” said the stranger gently, “What the hell,” he murmured. The stranger looked up from the arrow wound in the boy’s leg to the boy’s face.
“What’s your name, kid?” He asked.
“Stiles,” the boy breathed after a moment. Then he fell forward, his consciousness fading completely.
“Hey!” The stranger said, catching the younger male, “You can’t just—god damn it.”
Stiles had fever dreams and they were all haunted by startling green eyes.