She hurried through the scattered bushes and sapling trees, occasionally throwing a glance backwards to check for pursuit. The sounds of the Eradicators came to her ears on the breeze: the hounds barking, the men shouting and cheering. They had grown fainter after she jumped the creek, but too much time had been wasted in that blasted nest of thorn-covered vines. Now, they were gaining on the open ground between the hilly area and the forest proper.
The Eradicators were coming to kill her, and even if Crant could make it to the forest, there was no guarantee that the inhabitants wouldn't execute her themselves.
This most recent mess had started three nights before, when the young woman had stopped at a roadside inn for the night. A pair of well-armed men had been lounging at a table in the center of the room with their drinks, talking loudly and acting rude. They'd at one point mentioned that their party would be going monster hunting the next day, and were sure to bring back some Animkind corpses.
Crant had seen many members of the bestial races that made up the Animkind people, and had come to respect quite a few of them as well. She knew any attack on the part of these men would certainly result in retaliation upon any humans in the area, and had the potential for the deaths of innocents on either side. That night, after the pair had passed out at their table, Crant slipped off to the inn's small stable. There were only six or so stalls, and each of them housed a decent-sized horse, with tack and gear hung in sacks on the gates.
Without a sound, the woman had taken the small dagger from a hidden sheath in her boot and sliced some narrow gashes into each mount's saddle girth, the belt that went under the horse and held the saddle in place. The cuts were not big enough to be noticed by someone not looking for them, but once the girth's buckles were tightened, the strain would hopefully cause them to tear.
The next morning, as she munched on freshly cooked scrambled eggs and hash browns, Crant heard some satisfyingly-startled cries coming from the stables. The same pair she'd observed before slinked into the room, along with three of their companions. All of them appeared rather disheveled, and one fellow appeared to be favoring his left leg. Behind the group stalked in a dark-skinned man with a pair of short-handled axes hanging on his belt. This was the one member of the group that didn't look like he'd fallen off of his horse.
Taking a seat at the long table beside the smaller one where Crant ate her morning meal, this man was the one who glared at each of the others in turn. "Who was supposed to be on watch last night?" He growled.
"Me, Talarn." One of the pair who'd gotten drunk the previous night muttered.
"And why didn't you check the stables? For the Gods' sakes, don't you realize we're practically in Animkind territory?"
"But, I figured, since we weren't in a camp, Solsh and I could have a few drinks..."
Crant snorted. "More than a few, it looked like." She muttered. The leader, Talarn, stiffened, and turned his head just enough to look at her with one eye.
"I don't suppose you saw anything last night, did you, miss?" He asked, in a tone of annoyance.
"Afraid not. Though, I will point out, there's no Animkind settlement that's close enough to have sent a scout or two in order to sabotage you without risking those scouts' lives on the journey."
"And what would you know about those monsters?"
She took a moment to slowly set down her fork. "I know they don't deserve the reputation people usually assign to them. I also know they don't risk their warriors' lives on meaningless raids."
"Maybe it wasn't one of those beasts. Maybe it was an Anim-sympathizer." Talarn said, his lips curling into an unpleasant sneer.
"My goodness, what would ever give you that idea?" Crant tilted her head with a painted look of astonishment. Now his gaze hardened into a glare, and Talarn stood with an abrupt scrape of his chair.
"C'mon. We have gear to repair." He snapped before stomping out of the room, the other men following along dutifully. Crant allowed herself another chuckle before returning to her food.
About an hour later, after paying the innkeeper and retrieving her pack, the young woman had set out along the northern road. As was her habit, Crant kept both eyes scanning in either direction, and her ears tuned to the natural bird calls and plant rustlings of the surrounding land. So she was ready when a crossbow bolt whistled out of the tall grass to her left.
Dropping to a crouch and somersaulting forward, Crant drew her sword from its scabbard as she went. Two arrows and another bolt passed through the space she'd been standing, joining the first projectile off on the other side of the road. Rising to her feet, sword held up before her and feet spread apart, Crant took a deep breath to keep down the anger threatening to boil out of her.
"I heard the hoofbeats when your horses galloped past behind the ridge-line a little while ago." She called out, referring to the long hill that stretched out beside the bare-dirt of the road. "Why don't you lot come out here where we can pretend this is a fair fight."
A moment later, Talarn and three of his men stepped into sight. Crant's hands tightened on the hilt of her weapon.
"Perhaps this is just a misunderstanding." Their leader called, keeping his hands by the axes on his belt.
"Sure it is." She chuckled. "That's why you just tried to shoot me."
"Just tell us why you sabotaged our gear last night, and we'll let you go without trouble." Talarn said calmly.
"And why would I do a thing like that?"
"Because if you don't, you'll die here, very painfully, without anyone around to help you." He stated, in an icy voice.
"Now," Crant snarled, "What in Sarant's name makes you think I need help?" With that, she lunged forward, driving the sword toward his chest. Talarn dodged on pure instinct, backing up to put some distance between the woman and himself as he seized his weapons.
The men beside him did not recover as quickly, and before the one closest to where his leader had been standing could move, there was a sword sticking out of his side. Crant pulled back her blade as the man crumpled to the ground. Talarn got over his shock and charged her, only to have the bloodied sword block his downward sweep. A kick to the gut caused him to double over, and then Crant slammed the pommel at the end of her hilt against the back of his head. Talarn dropped without another sound.
A battle cry coming from behind her grabbed Crant's attention, and she dropped down to swing her leg out in a sweeping kick. The man with a pair of daggers behind her crashed to the ground. One swift sword strike punctured his chest, driving through leather armor and organs with ease. Withdrawing her weapon, Crant rolled to the side, coming to her feet ready for the next attack.
The last man in the group had started running almost the same instant the fight started, presumably to get the others of their company. Debating silently with herself for a moment, Crant decided she’d retreat to a more defensible position, rather than going after him. Stepping over to the grass patches by the side of the road, she stooped to wipe the blood off her blade, and heard the slight groan from Talarn’s prone form. Crant moved towards him once her sword was clean.
A nudge from her boot rolled the man onto his side. He was still unconscious, Crant was glad to see, but then something slipped out onto the ground. It was a silver pendant on a leather cord around Talarn’s neck, which he had been wearing under his shirt. Crant knelt to get a better look, and the cold hand of fear grappled with her heart. The silver disk was imprinted with the image to two crossed swords, intersected by a barbed arrow. It was the symbol of the Eradicators, a cult that took lessons from two different goddesses, Huntress Alasi and Nikheen the Victorious, and combined them in a twisted fashion. They believed that every Animkind was guilty or capable of great evil, and needed to be destroyed before they could harm the inhabitants of the southern lands. Now that she knew Talarn was a member, Crant couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of the Eradicators earlier, when first listening to that pair at the inn the night before.
Not wasting time to bind Talarn’s hands or feet, Crant started running. She’d encountered the Eradicators on occasion in her travels, and had earned a place on their list of worst enemies. Once that fellow who’d run off got word to higher members of the cult, they’d send a well-armed party of their greatest warriors to track down Crant, and that wouldn’t be good for her health.
The nearest settlement was the one she had just left, but it wouldn’t do any good to try and hide there. Her pursuers would just assume the humans there were on her side, and burn everything down. If Crant was to escape the Eradicators, she’d need to go someplace prepared to ward off hostile parties: the Animkind of Felisa’s Forest. They had weapons, defenses, and warriors who were already enemies of the Eradicators. Assuming, of course, they didn’t shoot Crant when she tried to enter their territory.
Hurrying away from the scene of the short fight, Crant spotted a large tree with widespread branches beside the road. She waited until she was underneath one such extended limb, then leapt upward. Gloved hands grasped the thick branch, and Crant heaved herself up into the tree. Moving carefully, she ducked and crawled through the foliage to a position beyond sight if the road, and jumped back down the the ground.
Crant went on like that for the rest of the day, hiding her trail by back-tracking at times, jumping up to travel through the tree-tops and using other tricks to throw off pursuers. Eventually, as the sun was touching down on the western horizon, she stopped on a rocky shelf by a stream. There Crant opened her pack and pulled out a small package of dried meat and bread rolls. She munched on the food, mulling over the consequences for killing two Eradicator initiates and severely injuring a third. They already wanted to kill her, of course, for speaking out against them and being what she was, but a transgression such as this could earn her some serious torture first.
Just as she was finishing her meager meal, a slight scent carried on the breeze from the south caused Crant to stiffen. She turned her head to the direction she had come, and confirmed the smell.
Smoke, with the tang of pitch, which meant torches. And with the distance the scent had to go in order for her to detect it, there were probably a few dozen of them. Packing away the remains of her dinner, Crant stood to continue her escape. She knew this stream flowed to the north, eventually joining up with more bodies of water that all led to the Longrea River. If she could reach Crick's Creek, there would only be a few miles of sparse woodland between her and Felisa's Forest. Assuming Crant could make it that far...