Half asleep, the smell of wet leaves and Greta’s sweetness clinging to him, Hafley nearly met his death. The hound scented him, and it surged through the ferns behind its baying. He drew his short knife, knowing flight was useless. His thoughts flew to the dog's masters, who knew how many, surely alerted by the beast.
He steeled himself for the dog’s impending leap, concentrating on the timing required. The hound erupted from the earth. Hafley shifted to the left, hoping the hound’s momentum would drive home the blade. It twisted itself as it passed, saving its throat but not its life.
He opened its belly as it flew past, and it fell with a yelp that savaged his heart. There was no fight left in it as its blood momentarily pooled among the damp leaves. Its agonized gaze seemed to plead with him for release, so he granted it with a quick slash.
Greta. How much time had passed since she had dressed and gone? A prayer fled his lips, begging for her safe return home, even if it meant she suffered her father’s lash.
Surely the hound knew his scent and had been conditioned to react to him so viciously, but who was its master? Who had come for him at last? He had thought his trail concealed through trickery and bribes where loyalty would fail.
He yearned to fly down the path and ensure Greta’s safety. His discipline won out, and he left the path for concealment among the ferns and deadfalls. No sooner had he hidden than he heard voices and sighted his enemy. Three armored men headed in the direction of the hound. He cursed himself for leaving the dead beast in sight. For the moment the foliage concealed it, but they were sure to notice it near the path.
There was no evidence the men had encountered Greta, but that did little to ease his mind. He slipped through the ferns, hiding among oaks and maples, grateful the hound had been alone. His mind insisted it was only a few moments since the hound attacked, but his heart raced and made his tentative steps seem to take hours.
Hafley barely peeked between the concealing leaves when he heard them. “Gag her, so she doesn’t bite anyone else,” a voice rumbled. He recognized it beyond a doubt as Martinson’s. Hafley’s blood burned like acid, and he saw that he had unconsciously drawn his knife from his belt. They had her, and he shivered at the thought of his enemy’s infamous appetites.
He realized that his plan for a quiet escape could still succeed. He could hide; perhaps he could plan a suitable means of rescuing Greta before they could hurt her. He wished for a bow, so that he might strike unseen, but his heart lusted for Martinson’s blood on his knife. He was still contemplating his escape when his rage usurped his mind, and he strode into the clearing.
“Martinson. How did you and your army ever capture such a dangerous creature all by yourselves?” Greta’s pale blue eyes lit up at the sight of him, and her panic tugged at his heart. She clutched at her simple dress, where Martinson’s brutes had torn it, sprawling in the mud churned up by Martinson’s horse. A mail clad soldier towered over her, and Hafley marked him for death.
“It’s Avernil!” Martinson screamed. “Seize him,” he barked at the man Greta cowered beneath. The soldier attacked without hesitation. Hafley, his true identity recognized, was armed only with a short knife, and the soldier’s sword posed him a distinct disadvantage. He stepped inside the soldier’s swing, blocking the sword arm above the elbow. Hafley’s wrathful strength obviously surprised the larger man.
With a scream, he plunged the entire length of the knife blade into the soldier’s throat. The shock of it weakened his grip on the sword. Hafley left the knife in the wounded soldier and plucked the falling sword from his quivering right hand.
“Face me, coward,” he bellowed at Martinson. His enemy responded by kicking his horse into a charge. Even had Martinson dismounted, Hafley would have feared to face him. He regretfully defended himself the only way he knew.
The sword was a heavier blade than he usually favored, but it was well made and equal to the task at hand. He marshaled his strength as the charger thundered toward him and gripped the hilt in both hands. His legs quivered in their desire to propel him out of its path, but he mastered his fear and stood his ground. He could barely discern Martinson’s lackeys standing motionless, spellbound at the chance to watch their master trample their foe into the earth.
At the last possible moment, Hafley stepped to Martinson’s left side as his mount trod within reach. Hafley brought the blade around in a two-handed arc with all of his strength. He aimed the blow perfectly across the soft flesh of the animal’s nose. The shock of it caused the beast’s forelegs to lock, and Martinson plunged head first into the brush before it bolted away in blind pain.
Hafley dared not wait to confirm Martinson’s fate. Greta curled herself into a ball on the ground, trying to protect her head and belly from further abuse. Rage swelled in him, threatening to cast reason further aside. Already soldiers recovered from the initial shock of his attack and their overconfidence in Martinson. He had lost the advantage of surprise, and he knew he could never beat all of the fiends.
He fled into the woods, leaving the hoarse shouts of his enemies behind. He was less encumbered than all of them and planned to outdistance them as quickly as possible. He hoped the brush and roots would further slow them.
He heard a deeper barking than that of the hound he had killed. He feared that the dogs were the larger fighting breed Martinson favored for use in the pits. If he could stay out of sight and move quietly, they might not be able to track him. If they did find him, they would surely kill him. They were accustomed to fighting bears, and Hafley did not allow himself to think he stood a chance against them.
The barking grew louder, and he abandoned all hope of stealth. He increased his speed against the wishes of his aching muscles and pounding heart. The sword pulled heavily at his arm, urging him to drop it. Hafley dared not abandon his only defense, even after nearly impaling himself when a root snatched at his boot.
Something was wrong. Ahead he heard the report of rushing water. The river, still swollen with the rain from the night before, should have been well behind him. Instead he headed toward it. He cursed himself, and then he realized that the river could help him lose both dogs and men. In their armor, they would never risk drowning in the quick current. The dogs could surely swim, but they might balk at the sight and sound of the rapids. If he merely let the currents carry him, he might even keep hold of his borrowed blade.
His pulse pounded in his head as he struggled to maintain his pace. He risked a glance over his shoulder, only to see the two dogs closing. They were giant mastiffs. Each must have nearly outweighed him. They were poor endurance runners, yet they crashed through the brush as if Hafley were their last meal.
He stumbled over a root and lost his sword in his panic to break his fall. His hands slipped in mud as he hit the sloping ground. He slid, face first toward the embankment. Muddy, matted hair fell into his eyes. The dogs were so close that he could hear their labored breathing even above his own. He fell.
It took him a split second to brace himself for the clutch of the chilly water. It took even less time for the pain to register as his body broke upon the rocks.
When he could breathe, he wished he had not. Some unseen blade stabbed him with each breath. His left arm would not obey him. He ground his teeth as he made his legs push his body toward the river. He preferred drowning to capture, but there was still fight in him. Thoughts of Greta spurred him toward the currents.
The frigid water inflamed his every scrape and gash. The remnants of his clothes dragged him down to slam into every rock. Voices were only noise, words unrecognizable over the frothing current. A new pain erupted through his shoulder, and he spun briefly enough to see his attackers.Gazing downward, the arrow shaft and point protruded obscenely from his chest. The archer on the bank some thirty yards upstream already pulled an arrow to his cheek. Only then did he realize he was being swiftly carried away. He tried in vain to orient himself with feet downstream and head protected, but the current ordered and his body obeyed. He failed to see the rock, and then he failed to see anything.