His horse bolted.
“Aurora, I’m s-scared.”
The forest sped by as they sprang from the path, hurrying off while the others fired back a volley at the two on the hill. Something turned in his stomach, fear, he considered briefly, but that didn’t seem quite right. Calling out a command to the horse beneath him, Aurora spurred them onward into the trees.
“It’s alright,” he assured. “No one is going to hurt you.”
“Who are they?”
Aurora didn’t answer, whipping his head around to spot the rider pursuing them. He swore, digging his heels into the sides of his horse and heading quickly for an area where the land sloped downward. His horse was quick, lithe and much smaller in size than the horse pursuing them, a behemoth charging towards them, but speed didn’t last forever.
The girl coughed out something that may have resembled his name, but her voice shook too badly and tears muddled the words further.
“Fina, listen to me. Do you remember the bad men I talked about before? Well, they are those bad men. But we won’t let them catch us, will we?”
He swallowed harshly. “Rory…do you want to call me that?”
She nodded, head pressing back against him. A crack rang out in the distance, shivering in the air and sending a chill down Aurora’s spine. They tore on, spinning harshly to turn away from thinning threes and back into the thick of it again. He spurred the mare onward, glancing backward again and reaching to draw his pistol.
“Fina, cover your ears for me. Everything is alright, little fawn.”
The girl didn’t argue, shaking arms clasping on either side of her head. He fired a shot behind them, hands quaking too badly to aim clearly. However, the shot was enough, the sound cracking out through the trees and sending the horse trailing them bucking and rearing in the air. Aurora sped his own steed onward, charging out of sight with a laugh.
“Fina, look! We’ve lost them!”
She lifted her head, eyes still wide with terror.
Aurora pulled back on the reins as they slid down a ridgeline, dismounting quickly and then helping Sarafina down from the heaving animal. He pulled them all back, against the ridge with Sarafina still in his arms. Pain, whatever he could have felt, was blocked by fear, but he wasn’t afraid for himself in the slightest.
“We’re just fine, my little fawn. Try not to cry, Fina. We need to be quiet, alright?”
The girl nodded, sniffling.
“Do you remember when you mentioned playing seek and find to me?”
“Uh huh,” she croaked.
Aurora smiled. “Well, right now, we need to win this game of seek and find. They can’t know we are here, alright?”
The pistol shook in his hand, clutched even with his hold on his horse’s reins. Things went to silence, not a sound aside from the breathing of his horse. Fina’s head fell against him, tucked beneath his hat and the feathers that sprouted behind him.
Her voice came as a muffled whisper. “I want to go home.”
“Shh,” he hushed. “We can’t go home just yet. But I’m not going to let anyone hurt you, understand? You’re safe with me, Fina.”
Nerves tore a pit in his stomach, claws ripping into him the longer he stood against the ridge. Silas and Daniel were nowhere in sight and the absence of sound, the silence, was almost more unnerving than any thundering hoof beats would have been. They were capable of defending themselves, he thought, but that didn’t mean the bounty hunters weren’t equally capable of killing them anyway.
“Fina, can you stay right here? You can see me, just watch. I’ll be right over there. I just want to look around,” Aurora whispered, setting her down softly.
The girl nodded unsurely.
“Don’t move,” he warned, kneeling down and wincing for the first time. “The horse needs you to stay with her-“
Sarafina wiped her nose on her sleeve. “Her n-name is Willow.”
Aurora nodded, forcing a smile. “Stay with Willow, alright? Don’t make a sound.”
“Rory, don’t get hurt.”
He smiled. “I never do.”
She only nodded, reaching up to pull the head of the beast down and Aurora watched as the mare nuzzled against her hand. He swallowed harshly, swearing under his breath as he walked out on wobbling legs into the open. His pistol felt heavy, clumsy in a trembling hand that felt too numb to hold it.
He squinted, staring out into the dawn lit forest, watching shadows dip between trees as light began filtering down from the canopy. There wasn’t any sign of either horseman, only silence and then a far off gunshot. Aurora cringed, glancing back to see Sarafina cowering behind the shoulder of the dusty mare.
He flashed a smile, but it evaporated the moment the click sounded above them.
“Of course,” he declared aloud. “You couldn’t have given me one vexing chance.”
The flicker of a knife, light catching on a slender blade. He couldn’t see the figure clearly, only the breath clouding in front of his the massive horse’s muzzle.
“What do you want? Or are you here just to make my life infinitely worse?”
The man breathed out something of a sigh. “Rowena’s got a pretty price on your head. I don’t care for it, but my friend out there does.”
“What can I say? The bitch,” he paused, thinking back to Sarafina standing nearby,” has something of a grudge against me. One that, unfortunately for me, she decided was worth shooting me over.”
“She’s not happy with you,” the man agreed. “That’s for sure.”
“I never could have guessed,” he exclaimed, eyes narrowing. “What would you say if I just said you and your friend should piss off?”
A snort. “Crossvale seems set on taking you,” he drawled.
The figure nodded from what Aurora could tell. “Heard of him?”
“No, he just sounds like a prick.”
There was a laugh and he watched the shoulders of the man shake.
His voice was strange, accented in a way he couldn’t quite pin down. However, that wasn’t the only oddity there and something else, something less obvious, caught his attention more than the accent did.
“I suggest you and your friend turn back. We don’t want any trouble and we certainly don’t want anything to do with her. I won’t be responsible for what happens if you don’t,” Aurora growled then, spinning his pistol in his hand fretfully.
“I’ve heard about you. Crossvale says the Dravara are afraid of you, say you don’t bleed like other men do,” the rider scoffed. “You look human enough to me.”
Aurora laughed, smiling cruelly and holstering his gun. “Well, why don’t you find out?”
“I’m not killing you, don’t worry.”
“Are you just waiting for your friend then?”
The man shrugged.
“Your instructions were to bring me back east, I assume.”
“Don’t think she specified.”
A flash of movement to the figure’s right caught his attention. Aurora glanced sideways, catching sight of the crouched man and quickly recognizing by height alone who it was. He grinned, stepping forward closer and watching the horseman tense.
“I’m warning you, I am human but, I’m still a menace.”
The rider laughed. “You’re unarmed…not exactly a threat.”
“And you’ve already said you won’t kill me. Are you really that much of a threat either?”
His chuckle was cut short, silenced as he was dragged from his horse and thrown to the ground. An arm wrapped around his throat, cutting off his air as he struggled back against Silas.
Aurora didn’t take the time to watch.
He moved forward, breathing out a sigh of relief and rushing back to the ridgeline to where Sarafina stood still shaking. Aurora lifted her gently and her arms wrapped around him, face shoved into his shoulder again.
“You don’t need to cry. Everyone is alright and look, we’re safe,” he insisted, willing her to lift her head. “Friends protect each other, remember?”
The girl looked up, still sniffling and wiping tears from her cheeks. “I-I know. Friends…friends do that.”
“That’s right, little fawn.”
Aurora gently urged her to set her head down again, gritting his teeth as they started out away from the ridgeline. He walked forward, struggling up where he could to where Silas with one arm still wrapped firmly around the bounty hunter’s throat and a gun pressing against his side.
“Keep your head down, Fina. Just close your eyes.”
Guilt struck him like a blow to the gut as they made their way forward, stopping just short of Silas. Sarafina never needed to be involved in any of it and part of him wanted to blame Silas for convincing him to go in the first place. However, the more he considered it, allowing Daniel and Sarafina to join them was just as much his own fault.
“What are we going to do with him?”
Silas shrugged. “Tie him up…not much else we can do short of killing him.”
The bounty hunter hissed.
A whinny and he turned, seeing Daniel charging forward from the trees. He slid to a halt, dismounting quickly and moving to Aurora’s side. “Are you two alright?”
“We’re fine,” Aurora sighed. “I-“
“Daniel, did you bring that rope with you?” Silas called.
“I thought you were joking,” he replied, moving to his saddlebags. “But I brought some.”
He went to his saddlebags, moving quickly to find the coil and Aurora stayed back, still holding Sarafina as his brother and Daniel quickly bound the man’s hands and left him tied against a gangly tree.
“Can you tie knots?” Silas asked, looking up at Daniel.
Biting his lip, he nodded. “Well enough.”
“Make sure he isn’t armed.”
Silas stood then, turning back towards his younger sibling.
“Where is the other?” Aurora demanded, covering Sarafina’s exposed ear with a hand.
“I shot him from his horse. He didn’t move…I don’t know how injured he is but, I don’t think he’s dead either. I’d offer to take them back to the cottage but, the bounty hunters probably know where it is. They’re no safer back there. We need to keep moving,” Silas answered. “Is Sarafina alright?”
“She’s terrified, Silas. Of course she’s not alright,” Aurora snapped.
“I know and I’m sorry. If I had known there were bounty hunters after me-“
“Crossvale doesn’t want you,” the man snapped. “He’s after that one.”
“I’ll have you gagged,” Aurora called, pointing a finger accusingly. “Stay out of this.”
Silas blinked, looking alarmed. “What?”
“They’re after me,” Aurora agreed, voice quieting as they moved further away.
Silas’ hands went to his hair and he nodded. “Alright, we can handle that. I’ve had them after me before and I just assumed,” he paused, swallowing, “they were after me. Rowena is persistent and the people she sends after us are just the same. We’ve tried stopping her once as did our father…but that’s another story entirely.”
“Our father was a town warden,” Aurora replied, puzzled.
Silas laughed dryly. “Yes, and our mother was a southern queen. Evander, there is a lot I need to explain, but now is not the time.”
Daniel cleared his throat, cutting them off. “Shouldn’t we be moving? He had knives and a gun, I put them over there.”
“Yes,” Silas agreed. “We should.”
“Go ahead,” Aurora huffed. “I’d like to have a word with the bounty hunter.”
Silas frowned, looking as if he was about to argue, but instead only whistled and along came Aero with Sarafina’s silver pony in tow. The girl looked up from Aurora’s shoulder and he set her down, urging her towards her father and the returning horses. They all mounted, riding off without another word and leaving Aurora alone.
Turning to face the man, his jaw clenched. “You tell Crossvale to back off. If I ever see him again, I’ll blow his vexing head off.”
The bounty hunter snorted.
He reached down, snatching the bundle of knives and the gun Daniel had taken from the man and walking closer to set it down just out of reach. Another hiss and the man looked up with a scowl, tugging against the ropes. “I’ll slit your damned throat if you don’t untie me.”
Aurora smiled. “Well, if I untie you, I have a feeling the result will be the very same. Good day to you.”
“Piss off,” the man snarled.
Climbing back onto the back of his horse stiffly, he turned, tipping his head and galloping off into the trees after them. They had to move, quickly and as far as they could and the moment he was out of sight of the bounty hunter, his expression fell. Terror shot through his veins, racing his heart and sending the tremble back into his hands.
No one was hurt, he reminded himself, but that was still no comfort.
~ ~ ~ ~
It was light above him, filtering down through cracks in a web of interconnected branches above his head, a patchwork of leaves and boughs that swayed in an unfelt breeze. Everything about it, the day and the brush of earth at his back simply felt the very same way, light, and yet it hurt.
He rolled over finally, groaning and moving to press against the source of the pain in his side. A graze, he figured, judging by the minimal amount of blood and the fact he’d actually woken up. And yet, the graze wasn’t the worst of his pain. His head was throbbing, a bruise spreading across to encircle a tender eye socket.
A whicker, a muzzle pressing against his shoulder gently, is what made him look up again. He frowned, blinking at the wiry buckskin he called his own, reaching up one hand weakly to brush over its forehead.
Walking was difficult, slow, and his head felt on the edge of exploding.
Finding Alekzander was less difficult than he imagined and the beast of a horse standing guard where the man had been tied made things even easier. He didn’t hear when he said, what insults were spat at him as he untied his reluctant partner.
His head hurt too badly to focus.
“Took you long enough,” Alekzander hissed. “I’ve been tied here for hours.”
Zayne sighed. “Yes, and I’ve been unconscious.”
He heard Alekzander laugh, an obnoxious sound. His blood boiled.
“What? What’s possibly funny at a time like this? Do you know what will happen if we don’t reach them in time?” he snapped.
“Do tell,” Alekzander answered mockingly.
Zayne clenched his teeth. “Well, Alek…I will have failed and the Crossvales-“
“Alekzander,” he huffed, collecting his knives and pointing one towards him threateningly “I didn’t say you could call me anything else.”
“As I was saying,” Zayne sighed, “the Crossvales don’t disappoint.”
“I got closer to catching your men then you have. I’ll tell you what, Crossvale, I know I’m disappointed,” Alekzander hummed.
His eyes narrowed harshly. “I’ve never failed and I refuse to start now. Get up.”
A scoff. “Now?”
Zayne staggered to climb shakily into his saddle, vision spinning and stomach flipping the moment he sat upright. Alekzander followed his example, slipping his knives back into place and climbing onto the back of his monstrosity of a horse.
“You’re looking a little green,” Alekzander remarked plainly.
He nodded. “I’ve ridden with worse injuries.”
Alekzander only sighed, reaching into one of his saddlebags and unfolding a large bit of parchment. Zayne frowned. “Is that our map?”
“No, not ours.”
“What is it?”
The man glanced up. “None of your business, Crossvale.”
“Give it here,” Zayne ordered.
Alekzander laughed. “You think that’s going to work.”
“I’m at the very end of my patience,” he warned, voice cracking. “Please, let me see it.”
With an exasperated sigh, Alekzander leaned over towards him and Zayne snatched the parchment from his hands. He looked down, blinking to clear the blur from his vision.
“What is this?”
He looked up, scowling. “Who does it belong to?”
“Them, I guess.”
Zayne looked up, grinning. “Perhaps you’re useful after all, my good man.”
Alekzander’s eyes rolled beneath his hood.